Stewart, State Shoot Up Raiders 80-69

Even seniors sometimes benefit from a day of extra individual practice. Even two days, as was the case for Barry Stewart. His additional hours in the gym paid off nicely with a season-high five three-point goals and 21 total points in leading Mississippi State past visiting Wright State 80-69. MSU improved to 8-2 while the Raiders left Humphrey Coliseum 6-4.

"It feels pretty good," said Stewart. The veteran guard was on-track to set Mississippi State's career three-pointer record, yet his senior season has gotten off to a struggling start at the arc with 34% shooting. But Wednesday night the results of extra work with assistant Coach Marcus Grant showed as Stewart ripped 5-of-7 longballs. Those included probably the game's two biggest hits, too, as in each half it fell to Stewart to halt a Raider run.

And each time he delivered. "I felt it," he said. "And the shot clock being low helped too! I got the ball and hit some big shots for us."

"Tonight was Barry's night," Bulldog head Coach Rick Stansbury said. "He jumped up and made a lot of shots."

Stewart wasn't Mississippi State's only marksman. Ravern Johnson added 17 points and continued his own torrid shooting stretch with three treys, giving the junior 16 in the last four games. PG Dee Bost and PF Kodi Augustus also had a longball each as the Dogs were 12-of-25 at the arc overall.

"That's the thing about this team," said Stansbury. "It's hard to take one weapon away, we have some different parts that different times and different nights can step up and make plays. It's hard to shut everybody down, we have four guys in the perimeter that are capable of doing that at any time."

Of course State has a big Dog in the middle capable of taking over games himself. C Jarvis Varnado was a perfect 6-of-6 shooting en route to a 17-point evening, adding eight rebounds and blocking six Raider shots. In fact the Bulldogs rejected 13 total attempts, with Augustus getting a career-high five swats. By contrast Wright State didn't block a single Bulldog ball.

And if Bost had a sub-par shooting night, he offset that more than sufficiently with a career-high 11 assists. This was no easy feat given Wright State's defensive efforts, but the sophomore point guard had the right gameplan.

"Because they are really help-conscious Coach told us in practice to just let things happen because they clog the lane, then get Jarvis the ball. And he made things happen. I was just looking for open shooters, lobbing to Jarvis over the top at the right time, just trying to pass the ball up."

"We knew Mississippi State was a great three-point shooting team," WSU Coach Brad Brownell said. "And we did a terrible job in the first half defending them. Any time you play a talented team with this many scorers they make you pay for every mistake you make."

Varnado in reality was State's margin of victory, because the Raiders were no slouches at long-shooting themselves throwing in 14 treys. Of course with Varnado and Augustus batting away almost anything attempted around the goal WSU had little choice but bomb away, and led by guard Troy Tabler's six threes the visitors kept things competitive for a few stretches.

"With the open-post it's easy for them to set screens and get open shooters," Stansbury said. "I thought (forward Ronnie) Thomas was the difference making some shots, he made four he probably doesn't make most nights." Thomas was 4-of-6 at the arc, while guards Todd Brown and Vaughn Duggins hit a pair of threeballs. The Raiders actually were more accurate from the arc, 39%, than closer in where they were just 9-of-30. Having 13 shots swatted will do that to an average.

Fittingly Stewart hit for State's first bucket, albeit a two-pointer, as initially it was Johnson throwing in threes to stake his side to a 10-2 lead. F Romero Osby—who himself said he'd taken extra shooting practices this week—drained consecutive treys himself as the margin reached 23-8.

But the Raiders, already committed to outside shooting, got the payoff with a string of treys including an open look off a loose ball. When Brown popped from inside the arc it was suddenly a 29-27 score that had Stansbury stopping play at 4:42. Whether or not it was called in the huddle, backup C Wendell Lewis got the ball under goal for an easy layup. He had to work a little harder on the other end for a defensive rebound that turned into a made-trey for Stewart.

Wright State inevitably cooled down, coinciding with return of State's starting lineup. Stewart had the hottest hand down the first-half stretch, sticking a really long shot among other contributions as the Bulldogs built the lead back out to 43-31 at halftime.

"I felt pretty good in warm-ups," said Stewart, "Coach Grant had been working with me on what I'd been doing wrong." This night he could do almost nothing wrong, especially when the Raiders mounted one strong second-half run to get within 73-64 at 3:39. Stewart didn't hesitate pulling the trigger and sticking despite a hand in his face. That was literally the case because afterwards Stewart needed some tape on a swelling lip.

Varnado added a final pair of swats in a single sequence to maintain a comfortable margin into the final minute. Comfortable enough that Stansbury was able to put newly-activated C John Riek, just off his nine-game NCAA suspension, in for the last 27.5 seconds.

"It couldn't have been a worse team in America for him to step in against," said Stansbury of the matchup. "I got him in at the last just to let the crowd acknowledge him."

"We played better in the second half," said Brownell, "but they came out making their threes. Dee Bost deserved credit, he runs the team well and makes really good decisions on the offensive end to find open shooters."

Tabler was game-high scorer with 22 points and Thomas added 14, with Brown getting 12 points and Duggins 10. But the Raider bench contributed just seven points, while State got 10 from Osby alone. The Bulldogs won the rebound battle 34-28. And then there was the 63% shooting by the home side.

"I always say it starts with the point guard coming down, kicking the ball up and everybody is driving," said Stewart. "It makes the offense go more smoothly."

Not quite smoothly enough for Stansbury who fretted over 18 turnovers—several unforced—that let Wright State hang around closer than necessary. "But they're a very good team and we'll look back and see this was a big win for us." In fact it was Mississippi State's fifth-straight victory.

That streak goes on the line, as well as on the road, when the Bulldogs visit Houston for a 1:00 Saturday game. "They have everybody back, and the leading scorer in the country," Stansbury said. "They beat Oklahoma and at their place. It won't be easy. It's obvious we've been much better going on the road, but it's never easy and we'll have to play exceptionally well."

Then of course the Bulldogs have been playing very well themselves of late. More to the point this team has gained away-from-home confidence with last week's wins against DePaul and UCLA on neutral courts. So Stewart believes this is a different Dog team than first ventured on the road in November.

"It's very different. I think we're complete opposite of early in the year. We're playing together more, things are clicking, and shots are falling, that's the big difference. It will be a tough road for us going to Houston but we'll be ready."

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