Turner Rallies State Past Georgia 72-69

His team might have been down, dug into a double-digit hole on the home floor. But the moment Coach Rick Stansbury uttered the word ‘press' in the sideline huddle, well… "I don't know if I was the only guy happy," Phil Turner said. "But I was probably the happiest guy because that's how I like to play!"

And how Turner and his Mississippi State team ultimately played their very best in turning back Georgia's upset bid. Trailing by 13 points and a perfect SEC record in danger, the Bulldogs put fullcourt pressure on their visitors and stormed back for a 72-69 victory. State improved to 15-3 overall and 3-0 SEC, while Georgia left 8-8, 0-3 SEC.

The leading reason was Turner, who came off the (MSU) Bulldog bench to produce a season-best 15 points and five rebounds. But the real key number on Turner's stat-line was three…as in the number of steals the junior guard/forward came up with against a Georgia team that controlled most of the evening's tempo at either end of the floor. Those thefts and other influenced turnovers were all-important in making Mississippi State's full-court approach pay off.

"Just run, jump, go get steals," Turner said. "That's an advantage to how I play basketball. That's why I'm on this team, to help in any way I can."

Though he'd been on-court several stretches already, it was only at the six-minute mark with State trailing 62-49 that Turner asserted himself. G Barry Stewart had begun State's second comeback of the half with a corner-trey, but it was Turner coming up with a deflected in-bounds pass off the first real press-play and hitting for three that put some real spark in his squad. Later after cohort Stewart had hit for another three, it was Turner timing his move perfectly for a steal, foul, and free throws and a 68-67 home-team lead…the first advantage since 15:45 of the opening half.

All set up by Stansbury's decisions to go with rarely-used, full-court pressing combined with Turner's uncoachable knack of forcing foes into errors. "It isn't something we work on every day, you know why," Stansbury said. "But we kind of mixed it up on them. We aren't a great pressing team, but it's obvious we hit them at the right time with it."

Along with the right people. "Phil was great for us getting those steals, hitting big threes, he just brought energy to the game the second half," said C Jarvis Varnado. "And that's how we won really, because of Phil."

Well, Varnado had something to do with the outcome as well matching 14 points with 14 rebounds and six blocked shots. PG Dee Bost had 15 points with seven assists, while Stewart scored ten. Every MSU marker was needed too, because Georgia gave just the sort of game effort Stansbury had expected…and maybe even more.

"There's a great example of just how good this league is. And when you're not at your best you can get beat by anybody." Particularly by a team that took advantage of State's tendency of playing flat-footed and getting whipped 47-33 by a until-now mediocre UG rebounding squad. True, many of those caroms were long since guard Travis Leslie led his team with 15 rebounds. Still this area along could have sunk State as Georgia had a 20 to seven edge in second-half scoring with 21 offensive boards.

"We just weren't at our best," said Stansbury. "But give Georgia a lot of credit, they controlled tempo. And the first half they got every rebound around that rim there was. We got none. I don't know if we've ever had a team whip us like that."

Yet down the stretch it was State coming up with misses, either their own or Georgia's, as well as making the crucial comeback shots. The visiting Dogs had one last lead, on a dunk by Jeremy Price at 2:29, and a possession to follow. But a dubious sideline-step call on Trey Thompkins got the ball back for MSU and Stewart was fouled chasing the rebound. His free throws gave State the lead they didn't lose, as Varnado stuffed Thompkins and Bost took the rebound all the way home against an overmatched Ricky McPhee at 39 ticks for what proved the final points. Georgia did get off three long shots to tie; Varnado blocked one all the way out in the perimeter, Stewart deflected another, and Dustin Ware got a baseline look that rimmed-out.

"The last four seconds Coach was saying foul, but I don't think everybody understood him," said Bost. "We just didn't want him to get a good, clean look. They got one but luckily they missed it."

Georgia might have missed a lot of shots this afternoon but their 42.9% accuracy was still the best State has allowed since November. Fortunately for MSU the visitors were only 2-of-14 at the arc as McPhee and Ware managed just a trey-each under harassment from Stewart and Bost. It was left to splendid soph Thompkins to carry the load with unexpected interior help from Jackson. Thompkins topped all scorers with 18 points though he was 8-of-19 shooting, while Jackson was 5-of-6 for 11 points.

And if the press was State's defensive turning point, an adjustment that took Varnado off Jackson and on Thompkins made a second-half difference in keeping Georgia from taking too much of an advantage. "I told Coach switch-off and let me guard him, Thompkins is a good player and I felt I could slow him down a little bit." Meanwhile the 6-3 Turner gave the 6-11 Jackson fits with sheer energy and not a little bravura.

Leslie had 14 points to go with all those remarkable boards, most of which came in the opening half when Georgia was shooting essentially 50%; as in they would miss the first try, gain their own rebound and put it back in. The back-door play was left unguarded repeatedly for dunks by Leslie that had the home crowd booing at times. The other Bulldogs also switched around five minutes in to a zone that threw State's various lineups off their stride.

"We were lucky to only be down 11 at halftime," Stansbury said of the 41-30 deficit.

Georgia was rather fortunate as well to survive State's onslaught out of the locker room as F Kodi Augustus, Turner, and F Romero Osby all threw in threes for a 47-47 tie by 14:05. State had three missed shots at the lead, until Georgia's Leslie got a loose-ball layup to stop their drought. "We probably took some questionable shots," said Bost, "it all started with me." Bulldog turnovers even allowed the other Dogs to get their own transition game going with break-baskets for McPhee and Thompkins. With State almost flat-footed in confusion Georgia was able to score on an inbounds play and work the baseline for more unchallenged buckets and a 13-point lead at six minutes.

It was still there at the 4:00 mark but things were turning State's way. Besides, Stansbury said, "four minutes is a world to go and we know we're very capable of making three-point shots." Three treys were sufficient combined with five free throws to avoid an upset that would have cut State's SEC advantage. But not eliminated it as the Bulldogs hold a two-win cushion in the West and are tied with Kentucky for the overall league lead.

The day's big winner was Turner, who has settled for an alternate's role at forward, guard, or just plain sparkplug depending on the matchup. "I've been doing a lot of sacrificing for the team, for myself, because I knew my time was going to come and I was going to prove over and over again why I can help the team win basketball games."

Mississippi State gets to rest on their early-league laurels a while, too, with their next game a week away. The Dogs head to Alabama for a 11:00am matchup in Coleman Coliseum.

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