"And our deal now is three games," said Coach Rick Stansbury. "That's all we've got to worry about."
At least coach nor team need fret the pursuit of the individual records which have taken public precedence lately. At 4:29 of the second half Varnado blocked a leaner by Alabama's Mikhail Torrance, giving him 536 career swats and surpassing the NCAA all-time mark held since 2002 by Wojciech Mydra at Louisiana-Monroe. The senior center needed eight blocks Wednesday to set the record and that was exactly what he got.
"Yeah, I knew," Varnado grinned. He'd have been deaf not to since the tying-block was announced during a preceding dead-time. "I saw Torrance coming in the hole and knew he was going to try to get off that floater, I went and got it." Stewart had an interesting vantage point of the record rejection…laying on his backside after the Tide guard made a cut down the left side of the lane. "I was flopping when Torrance went up, and Jarvis had my back."
Of course Stewart had by then notched his own place in the Bulldog books. He came in tied for first in career three-pointers with Darryl Wilson (1994-96) at 528 makes apiece. It also took over three-quarters of the evening for him to achieve history, which finally came at 9:50 of the last half as Stewart stepped-back from the Alabama defender and lofted from in front of the MSU bench for #529.
It was his third long-attempt as others had rimmed-awry. "It's been doing that a lot lately. But when it finally went down it felt good. The crowd got into it. And it was a key point in the game."
Right, the game. As much as these upperclassmen appreciated their moments, along with the encouragement by a somewhat-disappointing crowd of 8,477, history would have left a sour taste if the Bulldogs had not taken care of the real business. "There was a time in that huddle we all talking about celebrate when the game is over with a win, let's get focused on what we need to do," said Varnado. "It was becoming part of that game and the only thing that matters is winning the game."
Individually speaking State's key to winning this game was a younger Dog. Sophomore Dee Bost, still annoyed by a tough afternoon one month ago in Tuscaloosa, put on his own show. He not only paced State with 22 points but was 7-of-9 from the floor, his best shooting percentage of the entire season. And he stuck three of his four trey-tries including a pair that almost assured Alabama was not going to spoil the evening.
Varnado got back on a double-double track, scoring 17 points with a team-best ten rebounds to go with those eight swats. Guard Ravern Johnson added a dozen points and two treys, and F Kodi Augustus 11 more with two longballs as well. State was 9-of-27 at the arc. Alabama got 23 points and a splendid effort from Torrance, his unsought part in making history notwithstanding, and 13 more from guard Senario Hillman. Big forward JaMychal Green managed 12 points and five boards but only played 16 minutes—three in the first half—before fouling out.
"It was one of those games this time of year you have to gut it out," said Stansbury after avenging a 62-57 setback in Tuscaloosa to split the series. "It wasn't the prettiest but we made the plays when we had to make it."
Early on it was Torrance making the plays, as well as the shots, as he scored 12 of his team's first 14 points to somewhat offset the absence of Green after picking up a second personal at 16:50. Both fouls were due to Varnado who had seven quick points himself with State attacking the goal. The Bulldogs took advantage on the glass and mustered a series of second-chance goals and traditional three-point plays, three of them in one stretch.
Still after sub-G Riley Benock hit a trey at 2:59 to make it 31-29 favor of State, neither team would score again before intermission. That little lead, as well as being able to sit Varnado five first-half minutes because Green was benched, were all the Bulldogs had to cheer for the opening period. "We bought a few minutes," said Stansbury, who got to put frosh Wendell Lewis or Augustus in the post a little more than normal with no fears of damage. More worrisome was 36% first-half shooting and nine turnovers.
"Alabama makes it very difficult to execute in halfcourt," the coach said. "They force you to have to play some motion and we're not always best in motion. But we kept the court spread enough in the first half, and the second half Ray jumped up and made two big ones." Johnson actually made one big one in the opening minutes of the last half, following a made-trey from Augustus. The longballs nicely offset Green's return and first pair of buckets.
When Varnado executed a give-and-go layup State was in front 43-35 at 15 minutes. The Bulldogs did fritter away this first good run with some hasty trey-tries, but Alabama wasn't coming back too quickly. Because after getting a pair of blocks in the opening half Varnado was suddenly looming large. Really, really large. In just the 17th minute he had a pair of blocks, then at 12:45 he nailed another. Again at 12:33, and then 10:41 to tie the mark with a rejection of Justin Knox.
Those rejections mattered because Alabama wasn't going away, keeping an anxious edge to the proceedings. Trailing 59-59 at seven minutes, the Tide manufactured treys from Charvez Davis and Anthony Brock with enough other contributions that with 3:54 left the margin was down to 61-59. Bost, obviously stung by Burch's longshot—the two had been exchanging verbal and physical pleasantries all evening—had the response as he stroked form well beyond the keytop.
Having set his history Varnado came through with another big defensive stop, by taking a charge from Green for a turnover. Bost ran clock before hammering home another threefer, followed a series later by Johnson for a 70-61 score with 86 ticks left. While Alabama did get back within five points the Bulldogs knocked down enough free throws to assure there was more than a couple of player records to cheer.
"We were in the press and had them on their heels a little bit," said Alabama Coach Anthony Grant. "Those were three daggers that if they don't go, who knows?" His team shot 43% for the game and a better-than-usual 46% at the arc, and even had a four-rebound edge in the final accounting. None of which could make up for Bost's scoring and Varnado's defense.
"Jarvis has done this his whole career," said Grant, who has only been in the league one year. "He was very effective, physical, and made it difficult for us to get conversions inside." Though not making a big issue of Green's limited minutes, the Tide coach did note he felt fortunate to trail only two at halftime with his best man on the bench.
Meanwhile it was all-smiles on the MSU side and most of the crowd remained for post-game presentations to Stewart and Varnado. A historic date, yes, though as Stansbury said. "It's a special night any time you have two guys like this on a team. Those are amazing feats in themselves, but more important is now good people they are. Talk about winning champs, this is a reason why."
Stansbury can again talk about titles because this win, coupled with Arkansas' loss at LSU, gives the Bulldogs a one-game lead on the slumping Razorbacks with three dates apiece left. State also scored the 16th twenty-win year in program history, the ninth for Stansbury's 12-season tenure. But then the real goal remains.
"We're kind of fighting for our lives right now to get in that tournament," said Varnado. His team lives to fight another SEC-day now, traveling to South Carolina for a 5:00 Saturday shootout, before a trip next week to Auburn and March 6 finale with Tennessee in the Hump. There seems almost no margin for error down the stretch, but then Stansbury knows all about end-of-season drama.
"You win enough games, it takes care of itself."