"We came out slow," said guard Dee Bost, the game-high scorer with 25 points. "We knew for us to stay near the top we had to take this game seriously and play hard." The 6-1 Tigers are hosting Alabama on Sunday.
Arkansas fell further into the West cellar at 1-7 and left Humphrey Coliseum 13-8, having lost both ends of the season series with State. But not without giving the Dogs their very best shot, and shots, in what MSU Coach Rick Stansbury called a ‘tale of two halves'.
"Our players deserve all the credit," Stansbury said. "They could very easily have folded-up, and that's what happens most nights when you're down 15 in the SEC."
For a while it appeared Arkansas was going to beat the Bulldogs at their own game, as the SEC's poorest perimeter team—hitting just 25% at the arc in league play—shocked State with eight treys before halftime. They would finish with a dozen threefers on 25 tries, almost double their average accuracy…and have it all go for naught as Mississippi State shooters showed them how it is really done.
"I thought we played very well the first half and did some good things," Arkansas Coach John Pelphrey said. "The second half they were spectacular shooting the ball and it was much more typical for us."
Yet even for a State squad that builds the entire attack around perimeter points this was an exceptional afternoon as the three-ball record of 14 (set several times, most recently in January against Western Kentucky) was blown away. All were provided by four MSU marksmen, ironically none named Ravern Johnson who came into this game leading the NCAA in outside accuracy at 49%. The soph missed all three of his trey-tries and went scoreless, the first time this year a State starter has been shut out.
But teammates were more than able to fill the void. Point guard Bost called his own number eight times and hit on six, while guard/forward Phil Turner (16 points) added a quartet of treys—all in the first half and all vital to keeping some sort of second-half hope alive while the Razorbacks were running wild. Starting guard Barry Stewart recovered from a one-point first half to hit three threes in the second and nine free throws to total 22 points.
And it was backup guard Riley Benock stepping his own offense up to hit three major treys in the decisive period that staked State to a first and lasting lead. The soph's efforts were typical of why the Bulldogs were able to save a must-win day. "You have to protect your house," Benock said.
"That's the sign of a good team," said Pelphrey, who had game-planned for a red-hot Johnson only to see others shred the nets. "Somebody is not on and somebody else picks them up."
At the same time State was nearly floored by the early flurry of Arkansas arc-points. All five Hog starters threw in at least one three in the opening half, with guard Rotnei Clark netting a trio and point guard Fortson two more. Their accuracy was surprising but the effort wasn't to Stansbury. "I'm not sure Arkansas could play any better the first half. They'd been very good lately, at LSU and against Tennesee. And we knew they were going to play loose the first half."
Which Arkansas obviously did, while a State squad still enjoying their Tuesday triumph at Kentucky looked a step sluggish on each end. The Razorbacks were also just as clever as aggressive in how they initially attacked, not shying away from the shot-blocking presence of center Jarvis Varnado but going right at the goal and getting off arms-length layups in traffic. The result was a 11-5 lead after a three-point play from fearless Fortson.
"They were quicker than we were," Stansbury said. His own team settled too easily for long shots and missed all but one, by Turner, through eight minutes of action. By that time they were trailing 20-9 as Stefan Welsh threw in three, and if not for Arkansas fouls—State was in the bonus by 9:23—and turnovers things could have gotten out of control completely. As it was first Bost, then Turner temporarily saved the day by hitting for three, three, and three more.
Even so the deficit reached 15 points at the break because in that half the sub-squad was unable to cover the perimeter and Fortson and Clark took advantage for a 51-37 scoreboard at the break. Stansbury's halftime thought? "It could have been a lot worse."
"We went back to the locker room and talked about it," said Benock. "We came out with a little more emotion and fire. It worked out for us." Truly, there was no chalkboard magic about State's intentions for the fresh half, as Stansbury set what seemed a reasonable first goal of getting the difference under ten. And, he said, "We were hoping they couldn't keep up that pace."
Indeed it was a new-look Dog team on the floor after intermission as Bost and Stewart took and made threes, around a fast-break dunk from Varnado. When Stewart drove for a jumper and 53-46 count Arkansas was calling for a talk and Stansbury's goals had been exceeded.
"And that changed the whole flow, it was a new game," the coach said. A timeout didn't cool Bost off either as he hammered consecutive threes, before UA's Washington stuffed his next attempt right off the hand. What might have been the really tough break, though, came on defense. Matched one-on-one, Washington made a move and Varnado got in his way; the bang-bang call was blocking, a 4th foul, and State would have to play from 11:36 to 5:21 without the starting center.
But bench-Bulldogs rose to the occasion. Benock turned down one look, to complaints of fans, then pulled on a better one and hit for three. Stewart made free throws and backup center Brian Johnson converted a rebound. It was Johnson again with a turnaround over Washington for the tied 66-66 tally, and at 8:11 Benock put State ahead for the first time all day with a threeball. He came through again at 6:45 for a 74-67 Dog lead that brought another Hog timeout.
"Riley came in and made shots and played smart," Stansbury said. "Brian helped us get back in that lead. And I thought he helped keep Fortson out of that lane." Indeed the senior center allowed State to adapt the defense just enough to shut down the sort of penetration that had paid for Arkansas up to then. "Anybody else would have tried to do the same thing," Johnson said. "I just had the opportunity at the time."
Arkansas hadn't entirely shot themselves dry, as forward Jason Henry subbed-in to score on a rebound and stick a three that made it a one-play margin. The return of Varnado did leave the visitors in a defensive quandary though, and they had no good answer either way as Stewart hit from outside and the center powered inside for a 80-75 lead.
Which was as much as the Hogs could trim their deficit, though at 82-77 they blew a fastbreak and missed an open three that would have made things more interesting at the end. Instead Stewart drove hard for a basket before the minute mark and added free throws after it to effectively seal the outcome.
"We can't shoot any better than we did the second half," said Stansbury after State hit 64% overall and 69% at the arc, 9-of-13, after intermission. Pelphrey knew this was where the game had turned, too. "They made shots, we did not make shots. We struggled to get baskets and they got production from a lot of different places." After making 62% in the first half, Arkansas as just 29% for the second. All five Hog starters scored double-digits, led by Fortson with 19 while Washington and Welsh added 14 points each.
With all the focus on shooting, the stat Stansbury enjoyed most was State's 35-31 lead in rebounding led by 11 boards from Turner. It was the first time all SEC season the Dogs had beaten anyone on the backboards. Fittingly it came on the day Bailey Howell, who set the standard for rebounding when he was an All-American pivot for Babe McCarthy's 1959 SEC Champions, had his jersey formally retired.
Having survived this challenge, the Bulldogs didn't take long to start talking about the next one; Wednesday's rematch with LSU. The Tigers handed State their first SEC loss back on January 21 and this return game at The Hump sets up as the pivot on which both side's SEC Division and overall title hopes hinge.
Besides, as B.Johnson said, "We owe them one."