After a sluggish first half by both teams, the Bulldogs actually carried a 26-23 lead into the locker room at halftime. Varnado stretched that lead to MSU's largest by scoring a basket in the first half-minute of the second half.
From there, WKU energized a season-best crowd of 5,925 by putting together a 21-6 run. That stretch covered more than 10 minutes of playing time and saw the Bulldogs connect from the field only on a dunk by Varnado and a jumper by Barry Stewart.
The Hilltoppers ran their lead to 12 points at 51-39 with 5:32 remaining before MSU made its final push. A steal by Stewart and old fashioned 3-point play by Dee Bost brought the Bulldogs within seven, at 51-44.
A pair of Varnado blocks helped keep the rally alive. Two possessions later, Phil Turner hit the first of two free throws. Ravern Johnson then sank the rebound from 3-point range. That four-play cut the WKU lead to 53-50 with 2:03 remaining.
Again, the Bulldogs held two different times on the defensive end. The first time around MSU could not respond with Stewart missing two free throws. On the next trip, Varnado rammed home a putback to cut the deficit to 53-52 with 51 seconds remaining.
The Bulldogs rebounded and defended for a final time; however, they could not get the go-ahead shot to fall.
For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 17 of 47 shots from the field (36.2 percent), 4 of 19 shots from 3-point range (21.1 percent) and 14 of 27 shots from the foul line (51.9 percent). The Hilltoppers hit 19 of 55 shots from the field (34.5 percent), 5 of 19 shots from 3-point range (26.3 percent) and 12 of 16 shots from the foul line (75.0 percent).
MSU had seven assists and 18 turnovers, while WKU had 10 assists and 13 turnovers. For the Bulldogs, the free throw percentage was a season low while the turnover number was second most on the season, trailing only the 19 made at Houston.
Varnado recorded his 23rd career double double with 17 points and 12 rebounds. Bost was also in double figures with 13 points and a team-high five assists. WKU received 17 points from Steffphon Pettigrew and 11 points from Sally.
Southeastern Conference play is next for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs play 14th-ranked Ole Miss in a 12:30 p.m. start Saturday at Tad Smith Coliseum in Oxford. That contest will be televised regionally by the SEC Network.