Dogs Score 'Must' Win Over Gators 80-71

Maybe, as the coach says, they haven't been on any NCAA radars. A 80-71 victory over Florida gave his Bulldogs reason enough to hope they have a shot—and their shots—at making something out of this March. "It's getting down to the wire," said guard Barry Stewart. "I know a lot of people think we might not be in the post-season, but if we keep winning I think we'll be alright."

All was once again right with Mississippi State as they wrapped up the home schedule Wednesday night by knocking of the visiting Gators. The Bulldogs (18-12, 8-7 SEC) used a 9-2 spurt midway of the second half to take control of the inter-Division match and secure at least a break-even SEC finish. "If you're going to have any part of the postseason it was absolutely a must-win for us tonight," Coach Rick Stansbury said.

Florida (21-9, 8-7 SEC) after a third-straight loss would have said the same. Though in a better NCAA situation overall, the Gators now cannot win the East and are jammed in a most-muddled conference pack as the regular season winds down. State can't finish higher than third in the West now, but every slot matters heading to the conference tourney in Tampa. And more to the immediate point, the Bulldogs halted a three-game slide before it crippled all post-season prospects.

Stansbury said that State probably caught the visitors at a night they weren't at their offensive best. "But I was proud of our kids for bouncing back from a tough loss," he added. "The thing that our kids did, we played with some emotion and great effort. And when you do that sometimes it clears the minds of the cobwebs."

Certainly that emotion and effort, or passion as State players put it, helped clear up some offensive issues. The Bulldogs were their most efficient in weeks, hitting just over 50% of all shots and exactly half their 20 attempts from the three-point arc. Guard Ravern Johnson, the Exhibit A in recent struggles, was back on his earlier fine form by making 4-of-7 longballs en route to a team-best 15 points.

"I've been trying to figure out what I've been doing wrong," the soph shooter said. " But I just came out tonight not worried about that and shot the ball." Off-guard Stewart contributed one trey and 12 points, while C Jarvis Varnado dominated the paint with his 13 points and eight rebounds and a pair of blocked balls.

"We knew there were going to be some real challenges for us with their four-guard lineup and Varnado up front," UF Coach Billy Donovan said. "I think they played pretty much the way they've played the whole year."

But it was the contributions from the non-tipoff team that merited most post-win notice. The Bulldog bench chipped in 26 points, three more than they'd scored in the previous five games combined. Forward Kodi Augustus led the backups with nine points, hitting four-of-five attempts; guard Riley Benock knocked down a couple of treys for seven total points; and center Elgin Bailey had six before his night ended painfully with an ankle injury.

"We got great play off the bench," Stansbury said. "Saturday we got zero points off the bench, zero. Tonight we had it, those guys scored 26 points and added-to. I let my starters sit over there a bunch in that stretch." He meant stretches as in both halves the backup Dogs made their collective presences known.

And not just on offense. While the Gators did end up with 45% shooting and seven longballs, they were clearly uncomfortable most of the evening. Because Bulldog defenders made it so. Though not the most physical club in the league, State found a foe they could bang with and come out the better for it. Varnado certainly had the measure of any Florida post, as did Bailey; but it was farther from the paint where the Dogs did the really dirty work.

"On the film we saw they didn't really like being pressured, so we knew we had to play harder and tougher than them," said Johnson. Which mostly meant getting tough with star Gator guard Nick Calathes, who struggled to make 4-of-12 shots and was held seven points under his 18.4 average. Even limiting the super soph to five assists was a win for State.

"We kept them out of transition, that's not easy to do sometimes but there were some positions we were quicker at," Stansbury said. "Dee (Bost) did a good job keeping Calathes from creating for everybody else." And State's point guard scored almost as much as his more touted counterpart with nine points and two more treys.

Guard Walter Hodge tried to carry the load with a game-best 20 points and four longballs. Center Alex Tyus worked hard for his 16 points and forward Dan Werner added 10.

Florida spent most of the night zoning Varnado, not a bad call considering how State had been shooting lately. But the junior center negated that with the first two scores of the night, drawing more attention and giving Johnson room for MSU's first threeball. A 7-2 lead didn't last long and with Hodge sparking a mid-range attack Florida caught up by the media break. Based on recent games it looked like a gamble when Stansbury began rotations earlier than usual, but backups came through with nine quick points.

"Our bench came in and performed tonight," said Stewart. It was a third-chance putback by F Romero Osby making it a 29-24 lead at 6:45 of the period. When Stewart checked back in he hit his lone threefer and picked UF guard Erving Walker's pocket for a breakaway dunk, of sorts. State was able to take a 42-33 lead into the locker room, and only a minute into the new half the margin reached double-digits as G Phil Turner and Stewart got under the iron for layups.

"I thought we had a good balance of shooting and getting it inside," Stansbury said.

Seven quick Gator points had Stansbury using a timeout even with the media break coming up. He probably didn't know Florida would call for a press, but his team reacted rightly and Varnado made it hurt with a dunk. Later Johnson negated UF's last real threat by sticking it from outside. He and Benock would combine for threes on consecutive trips and a 60-48 lead at 11 minutes. Meanwhile Calathes was frustrated, held pointless from 9:13 of the first half to 6:44 of the second. Florida got no closer than six points and that in the final minute.

"We didn't shoot well even though we had some pretty decent looks," Donovan said. "We could have got some more drives to the basket, I know Varnado's in there but you can't just let him stand there and alter shots like he did. We got some stuff in the second half but I felt we cold have gotten more."

The win came with a price though as at 8:17 of the second half Bailey went down in a loose-ball scrum and stayed there, his right foot turned at an frightening angle from the ankle. He was rushed off the court carried by Dr. Chad Altmeyer and teammate Osby. It turned out to be a severe dislocation, and while Bailey was brought back out to watch the final minute he is lost for the rest of the season…however long that may be.

If the Bulldogs have their way, and string together some more performances of this caliber, it could last a while longer than most had been thinking lately. Stansbury wasn't worried about motivation for the home finale and Senior Night. "And you're still trying to play for something," he said, adding that while his team hasn't "been on the (post-season) radar, you can't control that. All you can do is keep playing basketball games."


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