And reason-one was Johnson, whichever end of the court he was on. He clamped-down on Gent hotshot David Perez by holding him to less than half his season average. In the process Johnson served notice that he can now contribute more than just points to the MSU cause.
"I know we've got one shut-down guy," Coach Rick Stansbury said, referring to senior guard Barry Stewart. "But Ray's gotten better. We put him on Perez tonight; he came in averaging 20 and got nine."
Which actually tied for the CU team-high, as not a single Gent could muster double-digits on offense. Wth Johnson putting the squeeze on Perez and Stewart hounding whoever brought the ball downcourt, the Bulldogs allowed just 32% shooting to the visitors. Guard Roman Tubner matched Perez with nine points. But the 51 Centenary scored were far below their season average of 80. At the same time State was able to score even a bit more than the 86 points CU had been allowing on average.
Johnson of course was that key, sticking five of his team's 14 treys. "They were playing zone and I got a wide-open look," he said. "And most of the time I get a wind-open look it'll go down." Stewart got some looks of his own for a couple of threes and 14 total points, while PG Dee Bost added 10 points with two more treys.
Centenary was zoning because they feared C Jarvis Varnado inside more than the host of Dogs willing and able to light it up from long range. "It was pick you poison," said Stansbury, as his team tallied the second-most threefers of the season and still hit over half the attempts. In fact State was a little more accurate from long range than overall, going 16-of-33 on shots taken inside the arc.
Varnado finished with eight points, nine rebounds, and four blocks which moved into 4th place on the NCAA career swats list.
Yes, Gents Coach Greg Gary said, they had talked about whether to risk a zone approach against State or try manning-up with the bigger, stronger Dogs. "They've got really, really good players," Gary said. "They've got great size and we don't have a lot of size. We played zone just to slow the offense but we did a very bad job getting into them. And they can shoot it."
But not at first. A matchup zone confused the Bulldogs initially and their first four trey-tries all missed, allowing the Gents to take brief advantage and even a 7-6 lead on jumpers by forward Jerrald Bonham. That lasted as long as it took for Stewart to pick a Gent pocket and score the go-ahead layup, then for Johnson to find an open corner and hit his team's first threeball. More followed in fast succession as Bost, Stewart, and again Johnson all struck for threes and pushed the lead out to 21-11 at 11:30.
"We're a three-point shooting team and when we come out and miss a few we don't stop shooting," Johnson said.
Varnado was completely controlling the interior so the Gents, not a prolific longball club, had to settle for throwing up such shots themselves. Perez hit one to get on the stat sheet at long last, and a couple more to save his side from an early blowout. State's substitution lineup wasn't as effective on defense either and Centenary got back within 24-18. But alternate F Romero Osby could score, hitting for three and two to maintain some MSU momentum, and a trey from sub-G Riley Benock had his team in front by eleven.
The starting squad reassembled at six minutes and extended State's advantage, even with some late-half sloppiness. Johnson was fouled lofting a longball that rattled in and made the four-point play for a healthy 46-27 intermission margin.
"We talked at halftime, that game felt ‘slow' for us," Stansbury said. "The pace was just slow to us, we haven't seen a lot of zone. But we had 46 points and it didn't feel like it, I think that was a little adjustment for us not being able to go up and down the floor."
The pace did pick up in the second half beginning with consecutive quick-trigger bombs by Stewart and Johnson. The Bulldog backcourt was free to take some chances and it worked with Bost and G Phil Turner converting their steals into flying slams for a 65-36 lead. Stansbury used the big cushion to work another lineup out that included center John Riek in his second college game. The 7-2 frosh got his first points as a Bulldog on a layup at 11:11, then fought for a rebound on the other end and in the process busted Bonham's nose. Trying to block a shot Riek managed to tumble over the Gent and into the stanchion but was unhurt.
Riek would collect six points and seven boards in his eight minutes, and only be called for one foul. "It was good to get John in that game, he's a hard worker," Stansbury said. "It's tough this stage of the game because he hasn't got many reps in practice, Wendell and Jarvis are getting them." Riek made the most of his time and the crowd responded, especially when the big rookie got to stuff it in the goal. "It looked like he was having fun out there," said Stewart. "When he got the big dunk it surprised me!"
That and other efforts kept the crowd entertained and largely in their seats until late. Such as Osby clanking his dunk attempt; only to be fed the long rebound of his miss so the soph could score three from the corner. Benock had a fun evening as well, making all three of his three-point shots and the last from professional range.
This was Mississippi State's 14th victory in 19 games played in Jackson, and the eighth-straight for Stansbury. "I thought we had a great crowd tonight, as long as we have turnouts like this we'll keep coming back to Jackson. We have a great market here and great fan base and I think it's been good for everybody."
Stewart seconded that notion after his fourth and final trip to the Coliseum. "We know it's a good alumni base. In the locker room we were talking that this was probably the biggest turnout we've had, and we enjoyed it."
The Bulldogs get a few days to enjoy themselves, turned loose tonight for Christmas. Stansbury will have them report to campus on the 26th to practice for next Monday's home game with Mississippi Valley State, as the Dogs look to keep that win streak going all the way into SEC season. A season which will open January 9 at Oxford against the top-twenty-ranked rival Rebels. By coincidence, Centenary came to Jackson after taking a 108-64 loss at Ole Miss three days ago, so the comparison question had to be asked.
CU Coach Gary, citing friendship with both coaches, wouldn't pick a side. "I'd love to know when it's going to be on TV because that will be one heck of a game. Mississippi State shot the lights out, but Ole Miss shot pretty well against us too. It's going to be a battle."
Following the game, MSU told media that the Bulldogs have been invited to play in the 2010 Diamond Head Classic; an eight-team, three-game tournament next Christmas season in Hawaii. Besides the host school and State, the current lineup has Butler, Baylor, Florida State, San Diego, and Utah, with the last team waiting confirmation.