It didn't get a chance to even miss as Jarvis Varnado blocked it first, and from there Mississippi State asserted themselves as expected.
"It seems every game this year we start slow and pick it up after a while," said point guard Dee Bost. "But to beat the great teams we have to start off fast and keep it going the whole game."
Varnado set State's winning pace with a dozen points and 15 rebounds, and had he played much longer than 27 minutes the senior center would surely have notched the second triple-double of his Bulldog career. The SEC's all-time shot blocker settled for eight swats, though his influence on any other Bronco shot inside the paint was seen in TPA's 12-of-44 ‘accuracy' inside the arc. Not that they were much better beyond it at 33% on trey-tries.
Bost was the game's top scorer with 13 points to go with his four assists and pair of steals. Guards Barry Stewart had a dozen points and Ravern Johnson 11 as the Bulldog starting backcourt all hit a pair of three-pointers. And while Varnado was the leading paint-presence, forward Kodi Augustus reinforced the interior attack with four buckets for nine points and snared eight rebounds.
All these combined contributions from starters and alternates made this win more encouraging for a team that needed the boost. "After tonight's performance I have a little bit better feeling than the past two games," said Stewart. The senior was referring to lackluster efforts in wins over Southeastern Louisiana and Bethune-Cookman.
Yet deep into the first half the home team and crowd alike were clearly uncomfortable with how this contest was developing. Five Dogs scored in the first seven minutes as Mississippi State ran out to a 18-7 lead. But falling behind only encouraged the Broncos to put up outside shots as quickly as they came open, and just enough of them fell to cut into the deficit. After trailing by a dozen points at 6:27, TPA went on a three-minute tear to pull within 33-31 at 3:07, and get the ball back on a Bost turnover.
Their shot to tie wasn't wisely selected though as 5-9 Charunn Jones tried getting it over the 6-9 Varnado, who had no trouble rejecting. On the other end Varnado powered for a rebound basket and another layup that led to a 42-33 intermission margin. The Bulldogs didn't cool down in their locker room either, opening the new half with a 10-3 surge that settled the outcome with 16:00 still to be played out.
"We turned up our intensity and everybody fed off each other's energy and we played hard defense," said Bost. At the same time the head coach thought his team was able to channel their offensive energy more efficiently, after a series of unforced first-half turnovers. "We were just pressing mentally to make too many things happen, make the big play, felt we had to have a knockout blow," Stansbury said, adding that the Dogs slowed their mental pace after halftime and settled into something like the offensive rhythm that has been missing in the early season.
Big leads allowed State to sit Varnado much of the last ‘quarter' and give backup Elgin Bailey four minutes he needs as his comeback from an ankle injury continue. Freshman center Wendell Lewis got in nine minutes of his own with a basket. And after missing two games for suspension, Augustus played a well-controlled game hitting four of seven shots and blocking two balls. He also stuck a three, and while Augustus did turn the ball over thrice "I don't remember getting on him a time!" said Stansbury. "He didn't try to force things, that's not bad stats and it's a rhythm thing for him getting back." Starting ‘forward' Phil Turner had a quiet five-point night while backup forward Romero Osby added eight off the bench.
Such play from the three- and four-spots is further encouragement that Stansbury needed, for both depth as a whole and offensive variety in upcoming matchups. "The things we want to do with Kodi out there are different than with Phil out there," he said. Ditto for Osby who played outside/inside well again.
"We don't have a whole lot of rhythm yet, consistently on offense," Stansbury said. "And it's a different lineup every night, it's a change of chemistry. We have to get better just with our chemistry and our rhythm offensively." Because, the coach added, "There's no more of these, we have to go on the road now to play two very good teams so we'll have a challenge ahead of us."
Which the Bulldogs understand all too well headed to the South Padre Island Invitational, where they face Richmond in the Friday afternoon opener and then either Old Dominion or Missouri on Saturday. "Not to downgrade that team, but if we plan to beat Missouri," Osby said. "Missouri beat them 100-44, and we let them have 31 points at halftime! If this team is going to be as good as we think, as we want to be, we're going to have pick it up and defend in the first half."
Which they will hear the next couple of days from the boss of course. "But what's good about it, I like going on the road and playing," Stansbury said. "That's where you find out what you've really got."