MSU won its sixth straight overall game and improved to 9-2. Conference USA member Houston fell to 5-3 with the defeat.
"Houston is a very good basketball team," MSU head coach Rick Stansbury said. "They are very hard to beat in this building. In the second half, we did the two things you have to do on the road to have a chance - we defended and we rebounded."
Houston entered the contest averaging better than 86 points per game - good for fifth in the nation. However, the Cougars found the going tough against the MSU defense. Houston only shot 31 percent from the floor for the contest. UH only had six turnovers but failed to initialize their fast-paced, high-energy offensive attack for long stretches in the contest.
In the opening half, Houston started strong, opening a 21-13 advantage midway through the first half. The Bulldogs were plagued by turnovers and struggled to maintain the fast pace of the early stages of the contest.
MSU turned up the defensive pressure and slowly climbed back into the contest. The Bulldogs trailed by eight on four different occasions before reeling off an 11-2 run. A 3-point basket by Johnson gave MSU its first lead, at 33-32 with 1:55 left in the half.
The teams were tied 34-34 at halftime.
MSU sprinted to its largest lead by scoring the first nine points of the second half. UH did not score for the first 4:44 of the final half. After a 3-point basket by Kodi Augustus gave MSU a 43-34 lead, the hosts eventually responded with an 8-0 run of its own.
The Bulldogs still maintained the lead until a putback by Kelvin Lewis put Houston on top 53-52 with 6:49 left in the contest.
The contest remained tight the remainder of the way with some critical defensive stops and a pair of important 3-point baskets by Johnson and Dee Bost added up to a win for the Bulldogs.
"We leave here winning a game because of defending and rebounding," Stansbury said. "Those are the kind of lessons your kids can learn that will help the team down the road. We did not shoot the ball well and did not play well offensively, but we found a way to win on the road."
For the game, the Bulldogs hit 22 of 57 shots from the field (38.6 percent), 8 of 22 shots from 3-point range (36.4 percent), 18 of 30 shots from the foul line (60.0 percent). The Cougars hit 24 of 77 shots from the field (31.2 percent), 10 of 31 shots from 3-point range (32.3 percent) and 6 of 14 shots from the foul line (42.9 percent).
MSU had a 59-39 advantage in the rebounding department. The Bulldogs had eight assists and 19 turnovers, while the Cougars had 11 assists and six turnovers.
Johnson and Bost led MSU with 15 points apiece. Also in double figures were Barry Stewart with 14 points and Varnado with 13 points. Varnado had his 21st career double-double, pulling down 17 rebounds in the contest. Augustus had 16 rebounds.
Houston's Aubrey Coleman, the nation's leading scorer, had 28 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Cougars. Lewis was also in double figures with 18 points.
MSU plays its final pre-Christmas game Tuesday night against Centenary College. That contest starts at 7 p.m. at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. The Bulldogs return home for a 7 p.m. start on Dec. 28 against Mississippi Valley State.