"Everybody knew this was a big game that we had to win," center Jarvis Varnado said. "We basically went on the road and let two games slip away when we had them won. Tonight we just knew we needed to come out and play hard."
The Bulldogs did play hard and, in several aspects, well. Or well enough to take care of an undermanned and overmatched Louisiana State squad that sunk farther out of SEC-sight at 0-6, 9-12 overall. State dominated the visitors defensively, forcing ten-straight missed shots to begin the game and allowing just 34% overall accuracy. The Dogs even had a hand in the dozen Tiger turnovers. All that LSU really had to show on the scoreboard was another heroic effort from Tasmin Mitchell. The senior forward had just over half his team's entire tally with 26 points to go with ten rebounds.
But he needed 24 shots and 39 minutes to do it, and paid a price from close Bulldog attention. "You know Mitchell is going to get his shots," MSU Coach Rick Stansbury said. "He's the one guy that can go get his shots. We did a great job on him in the first half. If he was at three we had Ravern (Johnson) and (Romero) Osby guarding him; at four Kodi Augustus and Phil; he slid to five and Jarvis had him."
Coach Trent Johnson acknowledged that Mitchell essentially was LSU's offensive gameplan. "He's been like that all year long. He takes a brutal beating game-in and game-out. And it's interesting, as physical as this league is he's only going to the foul line four, five times a game. (Mitchell was 6-of-6 at the strip this day). I feel for him, it's tough."
The Bulldogs had no sympathy to spare after Mitchell had hit them for 41 points last year in a double-overtime win over State. But they also knew one Tiger wasn't going to win this rematch as long as they took care of a supporting cast that wasn't all that supportive. Besides Mitchell the rest of the Tiger lineup was merely 8-of-29 shooting. "That was the whole focal point of the game," Varnado said. "We wanted to come out and play good defense. Good defense turns into good offense." Well, not that good. State's offense had little room for boasting either with just 23 points at halftime and 42% final shooting. "I don't know if it was an offensive game for either team," said Stansbury. "It wasn't very pretty." Four Bulldogs reached double-digits, three of them starters led by wing G Johnson with 15 points. G Barry Stewart hit two of State's seven treys and tallied 12 points, the same as Turner provided off the bench. Varnado had a quiet 11 points with ten rebounds and four blocked shots. Those swats pushed the senior to 500 for his career as he closes in on the NCAA record of 535.
Low production was a direct result of LSU's slow-pacing with the ball. "We're not running with or by anybody," Coach Johnson said. "What you see is what it is. For us to have a chance to win it's got to be in the 50s and 60s." Even that wasn't going to work out as none of his squad's shots dropped until Mitchell hit a jumper. At 10:11 of the first half. A few Bulldog fans even cheered the make. Not loudly though as their own team wasn't setting the nets afire either, leading just 10-4 at the quarter-mark.
The cheering was louder as State's Johnson got a trey to drop and then snow-birded on a layup that had LSU's Johnson calling for time. Of course all he could really recommend in the huddle was getting Mitchell the ball more often, and the All-SEC senior delivered three quick buckets to make it a 20-13 scoreboard. State led 23-15 at intermission thanks to a Stewart longball.
We couldn't score well the first half, they controlled the flow of that game," said Stansbury. "The only thing that kept us in it was our ability to defend, we were pretty good." What State had not done so well was put Varnado in scoring situations for a half. That changed in the locker room.
"Coach told them get me the ball, that's what they did," the center said. He began the new half with a fastbreak layup and foul for three points, a rebound score, and a free throw for six quick points. "And when they doubled-down on me we got a lot of easy kickouts." Which teammates did a better job of putting in the bucket, either from the field or at the stripe as the out-run Tigers resorted to fouling. The Bulldogs reached the bonus situation by 15:31, when Turner was knocked down even as his trey-try swished. The four-point play made it a 37-21 difference.
Mitchell kept manufacturing his own points, and finally found some help as guard Bo Spencer—one of the two returned starters from the 2009 SEC Championship team—stuck three threes in a quick span. But LSU could get no closer than ten points and State was able to coast down the stretch, letting reserves like C John Riek have minutes. In fact the 7-2 freshman made his first SEC basket in the final minute.
"I thought the second half we shared the ball and moved the ball," Stansbury said. "And for the first time in I think four games we had a plus assist-turnover ratio." PG Dee Bost had five assists, though just two points and left the court openly unhappy as his SEC shooting slump continues. "We need Dee to play better," said Stansbury. "But there was a positive assist-turnover ratio and probably for the first time in four or five games he didn't lead us in shots." Bost was 1-of-4 for the day.
LSU's Johnson was philosophical about another long day with short points. His lineups constantly shuffled around the constant of Mitchell and at times as many as three walk-ons were on-court. Besides Mitchell no Tiger played more than 28 minutes. "It's a situation we're involved in we have to play some people," he said. "We're searching for some combinations to help us stay in some games. We ran our stuff and kept the thing close."
Not nearly close enough to seriously threaten though. And Stansbury was able to give his starters shorter work-days as well, a welcome change after five harder-fought SEC contests. Varnado and Bost in particular welcomed their increased breaks. And the whole squad was relieved just to get back on a winning track going into month-two of the conference campaign.
"Tonight was a big win," Stewart said. "We knew we had to defend the home court, we knew we had to win this game because it is big for the next two weeks."
Very big, as State goes back on the road for a pair of inter-Division matches. The Bulldogs are at Vanderbilt this Wednesday for a 7:00 matchup of West and East pacesetters; then they travel to Florida for a noon Saturday meeting.