STARKVILLE – Jarvis Varnado is making history in style.
Behind his triple-double and a strong defensive finish, Mississippi State turned away a scrappy Arkansas team for an 82-80 victory Thursday night in front of 8,339 fans at Humphrey Coliseum.
Varnado scored 17 points to go with 12 rebounds and 10 blocks, giving him his second career triple-double. It’s just the fourth in school history, and he tied his own school record for blocks in a game.
“That’s big,” he said, “but I’m just glad that we won the game.”
The 6-foot-9 Varnado is now 52 blocks away from becoming the NCAA’s career leader in that category, but like he said, the victory was the greater concern on Thursday.
What had the makings of a blowout in the first half, when MSU (14-3, 2-0 SEC) opened up a 19-point lead, turned into a frighteningly close game. That was thanks in large part to 6-7 Arkansas freshman Marshawn Powell, who scored 14 of his game-high 25 points over the final eight minutes of the game.
“Coach told us to prepare because they were going to make a run eventually,” MSU reserve Romero Osby said.
The Hogs (7-9, 0-1) drew within five points, at 79-74, on a Powell hook shot with 3 minutes, 4 seconds left in the game. It was a standoff until Michael Washington made it 79-76 with 33 seconds left.
MSU point guard Dee Bost then made one of two free throws, and reserve Phil Turner stole the ensuing inbounds pass and made one of two at the line for an 81-76 lead.
“We put Phil in that last minute to go make a play, and he made a huge play right there when he stole that basketball,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury said.
Bost hit another free throw with 7.4 seconds left to seal it.
Bost, a sophomore, finished with 20 points despite being hounded most of the night by Marcus Britt. He shot 6 of 15 from the floor and 6 of 11 from the foul line.
The star was Varnado, who hardly had an easy go of it. The senior had to deal with Hogs point guard Courtney Fortson flying at him all night and Washington and Powell banging away on the post.
Washington scored 16 points, while Fortson had 20 on 9-of-26 shooting in just his second game back from suspension.
“Fortson did a good job of flashing, by getting in the lane and creating open shots for his bigs, or just laying it up,” Varnado said. “I knew he was coming for me, and I just did a good job tonight.”
Barry Stewart scored 12 points for MSU, while Ravern Johnson added 11.
Johnson said the Bulldogs were eager after a five-day layoff to hit the floor, and it showed. State hit 12 of its first 13 shots and eventually staked a 37-18 lead.
‘We kept fighting’
Arkansas chipped away and drew within 40-31, and the Bulldogs led 51-39 at halftime.
The game became grittier in the second half, as the Bulldogs shot just 30.8 percent after hitting 61.3 percent in the first half. Arkansas wasn’t much better, though, and it didn’t help that Fortson, who had 16 first-half points, didn’t score again until the 7:38 mark.
“It felt like we were down by 30 points, but we kept fighting,” Fortson said.
MSU shot 47.1 percent from 3-point range (8 of 17).
Sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke, who entering this game led Arkansas with 19.4 points per game, was held to six points.
“We came out ready to play, and if we hadn’t have been, you know what the result would have been,” Stansbury said. “So I’m proud of our kids for being ready.”
MSU must now turn around and play host to Georgia at 2 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2).
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal