Because two years after notching his first triple-double, against Kentucky, Varnado made double-digits in three categories against another SEC victim. His evening's line showed 17 points, 12 rebounds, and an even ten blocked shots. As UA Coach John Pelphrey said, "The difference in tonight's game was Jarvis Varnado."
"He was huge for us," said State Coach Rick Stansbury. "He scored it, rebounded it, and blocked shots. That's a pretty good night." A historic one, even. And as it turned out a necessary effort to preserve what looked to be a routine home win for State. But after a sizzling start at both ends the Bulldogs lost some edge and the Razorbacks made it a contest in the final quarter. A lot of Varnado's blocks and boards kept them from getting too close until too late to matter.
Varnado wasn't the top scoring Dog; that distinction belonged to point guard Dee Bost with 20 points to go with six assists. Guards Barry Stewart and Ravern Johnson added 12 and 11 points as the backcourt trio combined for six of State's eight made-treys. Arkansas relied on three players and they delivered as forward Marshawn Powell muscled for 25 points, triggerman Courtney Fortson threw in 20 with a couple of threes, and center Mike Washington had 16.
But missing from the leader-lines was off-guard Rotnei Clark, the hottest outside shooter in the SEC. He came in having hit 55 treys in 15 games; he left this court having managed just six points and a pair of longballs, having been harassed all evening by Stewart mostly and Bost as needed. In fact he only got off nine total shots and seven trey-tries and was a non-factor most of the evening. Not that it was easy.
"I tell you, he's a piece of work to guard," Stewart said. "You run through so many screens and so many big guys. And he can shoot from anywhere on the court." But not this time as he fell 13 points short of his average output. "Barry did an unbelievable job on Clarke, he comes in leading them in scoring and gets six points," Stansbury said.
The Bulldog boss had fretted that with five days to, as he put it, have their backs slapped and drink the poison of praise for knocking off Ole Miss in the SEC debut, his team might not be ready for this game-time. It was wasted worry. Bost and Stewart made mincemeat of Arkansas' defense for good close looks and easy dump-offs, as State hit their first six shots. And this was without a single trey-try until 15:13, that by Johnson of course and good.
"Sometimes we fall in love with shooting the three," Johnson said. "We knew we had to pound the ball inside." To Varnado of course as he dunked for sure scores and State raced in front 37-18. Had the Dogs maintained the high-percentage approach—they were 10-of-11 to begin the game—this one would have been over early. Instead State let the frenetic pace set by Arkansas infect them resulting in a series of unlikely and unmade attempts.
That allowed the Hogs to catch their own breath, as well as set up some open looks from the wings that sub-guard Marcus Britt twice took advantage of. Washington muscled around Varnado more often and by 4:25 the lead was down to nine with Stansbury pushing the pause button.
"You're going to have those moments in games. You have to ride the highs and survive the lows. Sometimes that (big lead) can be fool's gold for you. You have to be disciplined enough to get the ball inside and get to the free throw line." It was sub-F Romero Osby stemming the momentum, first with free throws, a putback bucket, and a dunk off Bost's fastbreak lob. The Bulldogs could take a comfortable 51-39 lead into their locker room.
The second half began as if the contest had moved to a local playground, with reckless and largely fruitless end-to-end play featuring lots of ill-advised moves and more misses. This gradually worked to Arkansas' benefit, mostly due to Fortson's quickness, and the Razorbacks crept within nine points at the first TV break. And good boardwork of their own misses helped make it 58-51 five minutes into the period. Stansbury put Bost back on the court and a couple of scoreless turns for both teams later the point guard was left open in the right corner.
"We knew it was going to be a fight to the end, they weren't going to give up," said Varnado, who had to adapt his swatting style for the nerveless Fortson who repeatedly challenged a center standing almost a foot taller. "Fortson did a good job of flashing in the lane and creating open shots for his bigs or just laying it up," Varnado said. "For a ten-minute stretch he avoided my hand. So I had to adjust and wait until he jumped and the ball left his hand. And go get it." Which he did, repeatedly.
Still the Razorbacks weren't done, hanging within the 9-to-12 point range until five minutes of the game. As Osby said, "They've got a lot of talented guys so Coach told us to prepare because they were going to make a run eventually." A combination of second-chance scores, including a kick-out trey by Stef Walsh, and some free throwing made it a 73-67 scoreboard. Inside three minutes Powell scored over F Kodi Augustus and it was a five point difference. Arkansas missed consecutive chances to draw closer but still had the ball at 89 seconds with a timeout to talk.
Stewart wouldn't let Clarke get open so the Hogs worked inside for Washington…or tried to. Because Fortson's bounce pass ended up in Bost's hands. State made nothing of the possession but did burn off clock so when Washington did get a jumper to drop for a three-point margin less than half-a-minute remained. Bost was fouled and while he hit just the second free chance it made for a two-score lead.
And G Phil Turner, reprising his big moment at last year's SEC Tournament, stole the inbounds pass. "We put him in to make a play and he made a huge play for us," said Stansbury. "Turner also made just one free throw at 24.2 for a 81-76 cushion. Arkansas didn't force the obvious three, settling for a drive that had to be rebounded and scored. Bost again knocked down a lone charity pitch and it was enough at 7.4 seconds to make Fortson's putback at the buzzer meaningless.
"It slowly started to go away, but we got a couple of good stops and made some shots and kept the lead," said Johnson.
If Stansbury liked how the game began more than the waning minutes, at least the finish showed his team's resilience under pressure. "We came out ready to play. If we hadn't you know what the result would have been," he said. "We missed some free throws and they made a couple of plays to make it exciting." Just not enough to spoil State's home league opener or knock them out of the West lead.
Besides, there was history made in the Hump and more is coming as Varnado now needs 52 more blocks to set the NCAA record. His evening's effort moved him past Tim Duncan for third place on the all-time list with 484 and he goes into Saturday's afternoon home game with Georgia only eight behind Adonal Foyle for second spot.
The home crowd of 8,339 got to see the new countdown banner hanging on the inner concourse wall, marking how many more blocks Varnado requires to set the collegiate standard. "I saw that the other day and it just shows how good fans are to me," he said.
The Bulldogs-vs.-Bulldogs match tips off at 2:00.