"You get a game under your belt after Christmas break, that's the biggest thing," said Coach Rick Stansbury, acknowledging that his team had returned from their three-day downtime less than ready for an obvious miss-match. "That's to be expected. Doesn't mean that you like it. Hopefully you learn from that."
State players could be more blunt. "We just weren't happy," PG Dee Bost said. "We came off Christmas break, that's not an excuse but we were trying to get back in a groove of things."
In one aspect the Bulldogs did stay in a good groove, as for a eight-straight game (and win) they held the opponent under 40% shooting. Specifically, the Delta Devils managed just 31% accuracy on the evening and were 4-of-19 at the arc. Their starting lineup was only 12-of-40 from the floor, so State's defense was up to a reasonable standard.
But making the other guys miss wasn't enough this time. Because the bigger, stronger, veteran home team lost the battle of the boards. By only one rebound, true…but giving up 45 caroms to a lineup State over-matched and should have over-powered had Stansbury scowling and the Bulldogs a bit embarrassed. This was the most rebounds MSU had allowed all season, in fact, and to a team that had not won a Division I game to-date. Worse, 16 of those were offensive rebounds that contributed to most of Valley's scoring.
"We came out with win which we're happy about," Turner said. "But we got out-rebounded and that just shows our effort level wasn't there tonight."
Mississippi State offense was not so sharp either with 39% shooting overall. Not surprisingly it was long-range shooting that made up for most misses as the Dogs were 12-of-33 at the arc and half the team's baskets went for three points. Turner had two of those treys, but the hotter shot was wingman Ravern Johnson with five longballs accounting for most of his game-best 22 points. With his third five-trey night of the season Johnson moved into 8th place on the MSU career list with 133, surpassing both Jamont Gordon and Tang Hamilton tonight.
"They were playing zone and we were knocking down open shots," said Johnson. Turner had a dozen points off the bench, while starters G Barry Stewart and C Jarvis Varnado added 11 and 10 points. Varnado also blocked seven Devil shots. Bost struggled again from outside, going 2-of-12 total and 1-of-7 on longshots; but he offset that somewhat with seven assists and turned the ball over once. For that matter the Dogs had just four giveaways in 40 minutes.
Guard Shannon Behling led Valley State with 16 points, and guard Jason Holmes scored a dozen off the bench. But the rest of the roster had only 17 combined markers, and they were 4-of-19 at the arc.
Behling was the Devil offense initially, scoring his side's first three baskets and out-scoring the whole Dog team for three minutes. After four-straight misses State got something to drop; a trey by Stewart. Bost added another and when Varnado finally got to touch the ball on the offensive end, he dunked it. And it was Varnado who also gave the home team their first lead, on free throws at 15:23. Still the Bulldogs weren't in an offensive rhythm just yet and it was a 15-12 scoreboard after Valley's Darian Donald tipped one in.
State's answer, as usual this season, was to go for the big shots. Stewart, Bost, and Phil Turner all struck for consecutive treys that had MSU in front 23-12. Mississippi Valley made something of an answer, aided by lax State rebounding and a couple of second-chance shots including a trey for Behling. It was as close as the Delta Devils would get, as the Dogs went on a 16-2 tear to run out the half. Turner did most of the damage with a jumper, a trey, and four free throws.
"That's been kind of consistent with me my whole career, just come in and try to be a game-changer," Turner said. "And just helping the team win any way I can. Tonight my shot was falling better than it has been so that kind of added to my energy."
"Phil brought some energy," Stansbury said as he replaced starting forward Kodi Augustus with the shorter, quicker Turner. "Early in the game we were kind of complacent, they were beating us to loose balls, driving by us, Behling was hurting Kodi. Phil came in and gave us some energy. He changed the whole flow of that game early."
Backup C John Riek was given five court-minutes to help out on the boards at each end and even score a few free shots of his own as the Dogs took a 41-22 halftime lead. It was Johnson getting the second half started right, with seven fast points including a lob-layup on the break. Bulldog defense was also sharper and Valley missed their first six shots until Kevin Burwell threw in a three. Which Johnson immediately answered for a 54-25 score. Behling and Burwell hit back-to-back longballs cutting the deficit briefly, before a turnover became an easy run-out for Bost…who bounced it off the glass where Johnson could snare and slam in the same motion.
"They were basically just running so that's the way we love," Johnson said. "Any time a team does that we think we'll come out on top." Which the Bulldogs did, if not as easily as should have been. The obvious miss-match likely took some of the edge off for State, as did their break and one practice to get back in tune. "I know it's human nature," said Stansbury, saying his team wasn't as sharp as had been in the prior seven successes. The rebound totals galled him most, though he could still point to good overall defense and a 16-to-4 ratio of assists and turnovers. And a crowd of 5,421 for this mid-semester date was another encouraging ‘stat'.
Still, "I'm glad to get that one over and behind us," the coach said. How glad the Bulldogs are about making a 7:30 bus Tuesday morning, for the ride to the Birmingham airport, is another matter. State flies to San Diego for a Thursday game. They will return to an empty campus for a few days before traveling to Western Kentucky to play on January 4.
State will be back to full-active roster for the San Diego game, as F Romero Osby was excused tonight for the birth of his child. "He'll be with us tomorrow," Stansbury said. F/C Renardo Sidney won't be making the trip back to southern California though. With the NCAA still sitting on his case, the freshman did not have to return to campus for tonight's game and cannot go on road trips at all.