By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – All season, Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury has lobbied for recognition of the suffocating defense played by senior guard Barry Stewart.
On Saturday, everyone recognized it, and at high volume.
Stewart and the rest of the Bulldogs put the clamps on Georgia just in time, erasing a 13-point deficit over the final 4 minutes, 8 seconds, in a 72-69 victory at Humphrey Coliseum.
When the 6-foot-3 Stewart blocked a 3-point shot by Ricky McPhee with 11 seconds to play, the 7,682 fans – or at least, those who hadn’t left prematurely – gave him a rousing ovation.
“You can’t explain that feeling,” Stewart said. “When 8,000, however many people it was, are cheering for you for your defensive effort, when nine times out of 10 it’s going to be for the big shot, that’s something else.”
The comeback mounted by MSU (15-3, 3-0 SEC ) was something else, too. Down 41-30 at halftime, the Bulldogs rallied to tie it at 47-47 only to see Georgia (8-8, 0-3) go on a 17-4 run.
Then, for the second time in three games, coach Rick Stansbury made a key defensive adjustment. Against Ole Miss, a zone defense was effectively employed in the second half. Against Georgia, a full-court press created a slew of turnovers and kick-started the offense in the final four minutes.
Phil Turner, a junior reserve, had two of his three steals during the stretch, and his free throws with 2:39 to go gave MSU a 68-67 edge, its first lead since 7-6.
The visiting Bulldogs answered with a Jeremy Price dunk, but after another Georgia turnover, Stewart was fouled on an offensive rebound and sank two free throws for a 70-69 lead at the 1:26 mark.
Dee Bost hit a layup with 39 seconds left, and then Jarvis Varnado and Stewart both blocked 3-point shots. A Dustin Ware 3-ball rimmed out at the buzzer.
“Their pressure bothered us,” first-year Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “We made some critical errors, and they capitalized on them.”
“We ain’t no great pressing team, as you well know,” Stansbury said. “But it was very obvious, we hit them at the right time with it, and we were aggressive enough in it and changed it up enough that it caused them some problems.”
Turner and Bost finished with 15 points apiece. Varnado had 14 points and 14 rebounds, while Stewart scored 10.
MSU won despite a horrendous first half on the boards. Georgia out-rebounded State 27-10 and had 13 second-chance points.
The Bulldogs adjusted, however, and won the battle in the second half, 23-20.
Trey Thompkins led Georgia with 18 points, while Travis Leslie had 14 to go with 15 rebounds. Leslie, a 6-4 guard, was held to two points after halftime.
Had MSU not found a way to fight back, it would’ve made for a long week. The Bulldogs are off until this Saturday, when they visit Alabama.
“I never saw no quit,” Stansbury said of his team. “I saw another level of energy. I saw some competitiveness in those huddles. That’s what you have to have.”