"Give LSU a lot of credit," Stansbury said. "They were very good, in particular when they got on a roll with Thornton."
A red-hot roll it was, too, as the home team turned a three-point lead just two minutes into the second half into a romp. And while a variety of Tigers contributed to the evening's success, senior guard Thornton was the shooting star. He scored six-straight points to start the decisive stretch, then sealed State's fate by tossing in threeballs on a trio of trips.
"He hit some tough shots," said MSU guard Barry Stewart, who had a frustrating night on defense. "I put a hand in his face. His teammates set some goods screens off the ball and got him open. And he's a good shooter." Very good this evening, canning five-of-eight attempts from the arc and 10 of his 18 total shots. For good measure Thornton added six free throws, finishing with one less point than minutes-played. Forward Tasmin Mitchell added 24 points in 30 minutes, with an even more efficient 9-of-13 shooting line; all in the lane.
Watching this show wasn't any fun for the Bulldogs, who themselves have made a good living so far this SEC season on three-point shooting and scoring. They always knew a team that lives by the three can just as easily die, or lose, by the longball too. That didn't make it any easier to watch.
"We had our best defender on him, Barry, and he scored 17 points the first six, seven minutes of the second half," Stansbury said. But such shooting merited the coach's respect. How his team handled adversity this time was his more pointed issue.
"We know we're fragile (size wise), we know we have to make shots. And we got exposed tonight in both areas. We've been doing it pretty good up to this point. Tonight, LSU was the best team pressing their will."
At each end, too. Because the Bulldogs were thrashed on both backboards, losing the rebound battle 44-24. State did not snare an offensive rebound until midway of the second half, and finished with just four and no true second-chance points.
"I mean, they just out-toughed us," Jarvis Varnado said. State's center did lead in team scoring with 18 points, but this was a deceptive stat-line because most of his markers came with the issue settled. More telling was how Varnado was kept away from the glass with four total rebounds, and did not block a single shot; ending a 35-game string of swats.
Wing guard Ravern Johnson had 10 more MSU points and a couple of threefers, as did Stewart on a nine-point night. Backup forward Romero Osby added seven. Still it told a tale that a State team that had averaged double-digit treys in their five-game win streak only got as many longballs to fall combined as one hot Tiger shot.
There was no reason early on to think this would be a blowout, or even that Thornton would be the big cat. Because both sides wanted to play in the lane at first, centered around Varnado at one end and Mitchell on the other. Varnado scored all of his team's first six points; Mitchell had eight out of a dozen LSU points in the same span. What hurt State initially was impatience at the perimeter, because the Dogs missed four treys when firing before working the ball inside. Stansbury critiqued the hasty work of freshman point guard Dee Bost who, for the first time in a while, looked like a rookie. Stewart was more generous. "I think as a team we rushed and got into the offense a little quick, we didn't get into our sets as much."
Mississippi State was out-of-synch elsewhere. Such as when fouled on a breakaway Stewart aired his first free shot and the next was negated on a lane violation. On the other end LSU lost the handle, kicking the ball twice with no call; and when the Dogs got lax Mitchell was left free for a layup and 14-6 lead. It took R.Johnson snapping the outside drought with his bomb at 12:36. That put some spring back in State steps, too, as Phil Turner converted a turnover into a running dunk and sub-forward Osby stuck a three that got MSU within 16-14.
Only the score was really close though, as MSU weakness in rebounding was already showing. "We got killed on the backboards," Stansbury said. "It was their plan, they're big and athletic, and their toughness and experience showed." Such as LSU reeling off nine quick points before MSU's coach called time. Thornton scored twice in the short run, one after backup Bulldog guard Twany Beckham had a jumper rejected by Tiger center Chris Johnson. After falling behind by 11, then 13, with Thornton connecting three more times from the floor, the Dogs were able to creep back within range as Stewart hit a three and free throws.
That made a 36-30 intermission margin, despite being doubled in rebounds 22 to 11. "And Jarvis basically missed five point-blank baskets," Stansbury said. Indeed the center hadn't followed-through on the short shots he'd been making the last three weeks, as well as getting pushed out of rebounding position.
"They hit some good shots, some tough shots, and Tasmin Mitchell played a great game," Varnado said. "To be only down six, I felt going in we could win this game." And indeed the Dogs got buckets from guard Phil Turner and Varnado to make it 38-35 only eight seconds out of the locker room. But "From that point we had a couple of quick shots, a couple of turnovers, and that led to transition," Stansbury said.
As well as a total transformation of the tiff. LSU's Johnson steadied his side with a tip-in, then stuffed Varnado's power move straight-up. Cue Thornton, who made one free throw before sticking a trey off transition. And after Tuner forced a needless corner-shot, Tiger Bo Spencer made it sting worse by connecting from beyond the arc. The 49-35 scoreboard had Stansbury stopping play to talk, mostly to Turner. "He shot with a guy right in his face, and that led to a three at the other end," the coach said.
The time-out didn't hamper Thonton though, as he hammered home three-straight bombs and, for good measure, converted a steal into a layup that inspired another stoppage of clock at 60-42. Such marksmanship more than offset a three from MSU's Stewart and two nifty scores from Varnado, and Thonrton's teammates followed his lead by building the margin further.
"I don't know what else we could have done," Stansbury said. "At that point we didnt play with poise we needed to and the game got away from us." LSU's largest lead was 69-44 with eight minutes to play. Or, to play out as Stansbury didn't exactly concede but used the rest of the evening to work out a variety of lineups. This meant giving backup center Brian Johnson his first SEC minutes, nine of them, as well as letting second-teammers Riley Benock, Romero Osby, et.al. more than their usual quota of action in relief. LSU left Thornton in long enough to reach the thirty-mark, on free throws, and didn't entirely clear their admittedly short bench until the waning minutes.
Losing the game, and sole possession of the West lead, did not bother the coach nearly so much as how it came about. The Bulldogs knew LSU played good, aggressive defense, and prepared accordingly…or so they'd thought. "They got into us," Stansbury said. "It was obvious, our point guard didn't score until the last two-three minutes of the game. Their pressure got into us and I'm sure we lost our poise there."
The key now is not letting one bad night on the road carry over into another, as these Bulldogs head to Athens for a Saturday evening match with the Georgia Dogs (5:00, ESPN2). State knows there will be a rematch with LSU in Starkville, so they can still see the latest standings as a bit better than a tie with the Tigers. They just can't let this sort of performance happen again, Stewart said.
"It's a game that's going to test our team, how quickly we can recover. We have to forget about this one and get ready for Georgia, just come out and attack."