"It's good to get one on the right side of the win column," said Bulldog Coach Rick Stansbury. Setting aside whether there is an wrong side on said column, the State coach had to be just as satisfied with how his team got their W. Senior center Varnado certainly was.
"We came out and defended well, that's Bulldog basketball right there," he said. "And we out-rebounded our opponent, that's Bulldog basketball." The evening also saw Varnado in his own fine form, making six of eight shots and eight more free shots en route to the 20-point effort. He covered nine rebounds and blocked eight shots, which leaves him three swats shy of matching the SEC standard of 412 set in 1992 by Shaquille O'Neal.
The rest of State's starting lineup joined their center in double-digit scoring, with 17 from Ravern Johnson. Over half his markers came on a trio of treys as the Dogs combined for ten three-point goals. In fact State edged the Lions at their own preferred style of play, as Southeastern was 8-of-25 at the arc.
"They've got some pretty good shooters," Johnson said. "Guys making tough shots. Their team is similar to ours, we've just got more talented guys." Guard Barry Stewart added 13 points and both point guard Dee Bost and forward Phil Turner ten apiece. Bost's 32 minutes were impressive because the soph was playing on a practiced-strained groin muscle.
Turner was that much more impressive by grabbing 14 rebounds, tying his career high. Though the Lions were not a big squad, that many boards for a 6-3 guard playing ‘big' forward out of lineup necessity stood out. "It wasn't really an adjustment," said Turner, who started in place of suspended power forward Kodi Augustus. "I'm just the put-in guy wherever the team needs me, I'm willing to help the team."
Southeastern Louisiana center Patrick Sullivan matched Varnado for game scoring honors with 20 points but needed 21 shots—nine made—to get there. The 6-9 pivot struggled to take, much less make good shots as long as Varnado was between him and the rim; something else State's center took post-game pride in.
"Coach told me he's a real good shooter and good driver, so I had to play position defense," said Varnado, who put in 30 minutes himself with brief respites provided by Elgin Bailey and Wendell Lewis. "Coach told us don't worry about getting tired, so I tried to go all-out tonight."
Both sides were going all-out initially, making the shot clock superfluous. In fact the first stoppage of play didn't come until 14:50, when a Bulldog pass missed the target for a turnover. It was one of the few early mis-steps for State as Dogs hit eight of their first 11 shots including five treys for a 23-9 lead. It took a banker and free throw from SELa's Damon Forrest to stop a 10-0 run by the home squad.
Mississippi State couldn't keep up such efficiency for long though and the Lions were able to hit a couple of long shots and pull the deficit under double-digits. In a five-minute span State missed eight of ten shots allowing Southeastern to creep within 33-27 on a Dixon longball. Romero Osby was able to answer in kind at the other end though and Stewart finish a break, and the starting lineup returned to make the halftime margin 41-29.
"We know we're going to have lapses and once we got back in we knew we had to pick the tempo back up," said Johnson.
Contrary to their first half, the second period saw both sides sputtering with combined 5-of-15 shooting and about as many fouls as baskets. Still State was competent enough offensively that the Lions got no closer than 46-37, on free throws. Jumpers by Turner and Riley Benock stretched the cushion right back out and allow Stansbury to get something like a bench rotation going for a few valuable minutes.
When the starting lineup reassembled the lead was down to 59-51 at mid-point of the period. Varnado screened for Bost to hit a top-trey, then hit free throws himself to stem Lion momentum a moment. Not that the Bulldogs were executing so well themselves as ten-second span with four total turnovers, two by each squad, represented how ragged play got.
"I didn't want them to just keep hanging around," said Stansbury. "I subbed those starters back in." It was 68-57 when Varnado got his sixth block of the night, leading to a shot-clock violation by the Lions, and the State center worked for a dunk at the other end. His next three free throws effectively sealed the outcome with a 14-pount bulge at the three-minute mark, though the MSU margin would peak when reserve Taylor Luczak caromed-in a long jumper for the final points.
"I thought our guys found a way to suck it up a little bit more the second half than the other night," Stansbury said. The Bulldogs out-shot their guests 45% to 39% and held a much more telling advantage in rebounding, 47 to 30.
"Defensively for the most part we did a great job on their shooters," Stansbury said. "We had some breakdowns but for the most part we took away something they're really good at." At the same time State's starters got back to doing what they are good at, defending and rebounding. Most obviously, Varnado who will go for the SEC blocks record against Bethune-Cookman this Saturday. He is also 51 points away from joining State's 1,000-Point Club, and finished Thursday night with 750 career rebounds.
Though breaking O'Neal's record will be something to celebrate, Varnado is keeping it low-key in the current context. "I'm not worried about that. I'm just worried about getting a win on Saturday."
For his part Stansbury hopes to get through Saturday, and a Tuesday game with Texas-Pan American, without any more damage to his limited lineup; though Augustus is serving an announced two-game suspension. Getting Bailey back in some action after his bad March ankle injury, and having a gimpy Benock provide 15 minutes for a thin backcourt, are encouraging signs. But the coach says Friday's practice will be "a light one, I promise you. We'll take the win and move on."