Five minutes into the second half Mississippi State was sputtering along, a double-digit lead abruptly cut in half and the mostly-home crowd of 4,433 getting antsy. That’s when Jackson State guard Phillip Williams got chippy and, out in a perimeter screen, gave Bulldog Dee Bost a shot to the crotch at 14:07. The official caught and assessed both a personal and a technical foul. Then a second ‘T’ as Williams said something unprintable.
Assessing all the free throws gave Bost time to recover his physical poise. Emotionally? “It made me maybe more aggressive as far as scoring, defensive wise,” the sophomore point guard said. “It motivated me. I felt like that was disrespecting where he hit me at. It woke me up and I was ready to play.”
As well as ready to stick the four free throws, then on the ensuing possession hammer home a three-pointer that pushed Mississippi State in front ---- and on their way to a strong finish. Bost used the extra inspiration to score 18 points along with six assists and three steals.
“We needed to turn it up anyway,” Bost said. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re a good team, but we should have been playing a little better. We all turned it up from there.”
Coach Rick Stansbury wasn’t surprised it took a while, and even that incident, for his team to turn it up, since it had been only two days since the Bulldogs learned they would have to settle for the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament. State had not even practiced on Monday and done a perfunctory scouting of the SWAC regular-season champion Tigers on game morning. So Stansbury did not criticize the club for a sluggish start.
“We had an opportunity to come out and lay an egg tonight. They didn’t do that.”
Nor did the Tigers, who ended their season 19-13. But Jackson State did not play the part of designated victim in the matchup of #1 and #8 seeds in this NIT quadrant. With guard Garrison Jackson throwing in a career-high 32 points the Tigers kept it competitive for over a half and even ended up out-rebounding and often as not out-scrapping the bigger Bulldogs.
But superior size, speed, strength and when they found it motivation showed in Mississippi State’s eventual favor. “We just took care of business in the second half,” said center Jarvis Varnado, who had a team-best 21 points with 11 rebounds and three blocked shots. Forward Kodi Augustus added 13 points and five boards as the Bulldog front line gradually asserted itself, after State had spent the first half firing outside shots and going 4-of-17 at the arc.
“I think we were just missing shots,” said Varnado. “We were moving the ball well and sharing the ball, our guards were just missing shots. But we got it going the second half making shots, going inside and out, and playing ball.”
What made Johnson’s big night at the Hump more impressive was that the Bulldogs shut him out for almost the first 13 full minutes of the opening half. He got 25 in the second half and hit six treys for the game, one shy of his career-best. “He’s a very good player, he can shoot extremely well,” MSU guard Phil Turner said. “He just caught fire at the end trying to rally his team.”
Guard Tyrone Hansen added 11 points and three treys for the Tigers, while guard Rod Melvin had eight points. Jackson State began with as much of a post-player as they could put on the court but center Oliver Jefferson only worked eight minutes and scored nothing, obviously intimidated by Varnado. For that matter plenty of un-blocked shots might as well never been attempted as they were wild heaves meant more to avoid the big Bulldog’s hand than get into the goal.
State was flat overall in the early going on offense and Jackson State not effective for their part, until steals by Bost and guard Barry Stewart produced layups and started a 10-point Bulldog burst. JSU’s Williams took it on himself to end a drought with a couple of short jumpers, something the Dogs might have paid more attention to as of their first 23 official shots 15 came from beyond the arc.
“We didn’t shoot very well the first half, they zoned us a lot,” said Stansbury. “And we had open shots, I don’t think there were any bad shots. We just didn’t make them. But still you have to pass that ball inside.” That would come in the second half, after a 32-23 intermission lead was cut to 35-30 by Johnson jumpers. Soon after though Bost and Williams were working for position on JSU’s end, and Williams made a bad decision.
“We didn’t know what was up with that,” said Turner. “But the Jackson State guys were very nice and they didn’t know what got into him, they said he’s usually not like that. Maybe he got caught-up in the emotion of the game.” It cost his club dearly as Bost translated anger into action the right way with seven quick points. “I wish he would have stayed in the game!” said Bost in the locker room later. “I’m a little angry about that.”
“He started playing faster for some reason,” noted Augustus. “That makes everybody play faster. What a coincidence!”
Neither was it coincidental that after getting too few touches, Varnado became the real center of offensive attention. He scored eleven points in a 14-6 Bulldog run that settled any concerns about an upset. Johnson was able to throw in some more long balls, as State’s Stewart had to leave the game with a hurt foot. He was to have a x-ray done at 10:00 Wednesday morning and Stansbury was concerned that his best backcourt defender and the school’s all-time three-point leader might be hurting.
State shot 41% for the evening and was 8-of-29 at the arc, as Jackson State actually had more treys (10) in fewer attempts and a 38-35 rebound lead. But the Bulldogs used the free throw line to good effect, making 29-of-38 chances for their margin of homecourt victory.
“The second half we got the ball to the paint, pass and dribble, and got to the foul line,” Stansbury said. “You have to take advantage of things you have and we had a size advantage.”
That won’t be as true Saturday when the Tarheels, homecourt winners over William & Mary in the first round, come to Starkville. Though just a game over .500 now North Carolina is more than just a name worthy of regard. “Carolina is always going to mean something as long as Roy Williams is there,” said Turner. “Of course we’re going to come out ready.”
And yes, Bost won’t lack for motivation this weekend. Not that he’ll need it provided so personally; the North Carolina native is ready for a shot at his home-state squad.
“I mean, I’m going to show them why they should have recruited me a little bit harder! But they’re a good team, even having a down year they’re a good team.”
More ticket information was to be announced by Mississippi State Wednesday.