OXFORD – Ole Miss couldn’t get its outside game going against the Mississippi State zone on Saturday afternoon, and that left it with the single, unappealing option of challenging Jarvis Varnado.
The Bulldogs’ center blocked six shots and turned the Rebels into indecisive drivers. There was less hesitation on the part of MSU point guard Dee Bost, who scored scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half to lead the Bulldogs to an 80-75 SEC-opening win in a matchup of the Western Division’s projected top finishers.
Ole Miss entered the game at No. 14 in the Associated Press poll, its highest ranking since 2001.
A Tad Smith Coliseum crowd of 9,360, the arena’s second-largest, watched the Bulldogs hold Ole Miss guard Terrico White to nine points. White, the SEC’s No. 4 scorer, had hit 12 3-pointers in the last two games but was 1-for-5 behind the arc.
When the Rebels (12-3, 0-1 SEC) were able to get past the first line of defense, Varnado altered shots.
“There’s no telling how many shots he altered,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. “We knew for us to win the game Jarvis had to take it over.”
Varnado had 12 rebounds but was only 2-for-7 from the floor, 5-for-8 from the free throw line. There’s no stat for presence, and that’s where Varnado was the biggest as he lurked in the middle of the MSU zone.
“I was on defensively. That made it hard for them, and that’s what I wanted,” said Varnado, the nation’s leading shot-blocker now with 80 on the season.
Normally a man-to-man defense, Stansbury used the zone to offset the Rebels’ smaller, more athletic lineup when Eniel Polynice and Zach Graham were in the game together.
“We anticipated the zone, because we’re a team that’s hard to guard off the dribble,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “We got to the center of the zone, but we made poor decisions. We engaged Jarvis in the action and forgot to pitch it.”
“You have to go in with the idea that you’re going to dunk it or pitch it, and we didn’t pitch it enough,” Graham said.
Varnado was able to guard without fouling, the numbers indicate.
MSU scored 22 points at the free throw line compared to the Rebels’ 8-for-13 effort.
“We’re a team that fouls. Our opponents had made 120 more free throws than their opponents coming in, and that speaks to fouling,” Kennedy said. “It’s something we have to improve on.”
Bost was the biggest beneficiary, going 9-for-12 at the line.
Ole Miss overcame a 12-point first-half deficit to lead 42-37 at halftime. The Rebels were up nine in the second half, the last time with 12 minutes, 54 seconds remaining after Polynice lobbed to Terrence Henry for two.
Bost scored State’s next 10 points to make it 59-57. After a Varnado tip tied the game, the lead changed hands four times before a Bost 3-pointer put the Bulldogs ahead to stay. The MSU lead grew to seven with a Ravern Johnson 3-pointer to make it 72-65 with 2:42 left.
The Bulldogs got 15 points from Johnson and 13 from Kodi Augustus. Stansbury credited the play of his bench, but MSU’s starters scored 73 of its 80 points.
Ole Miss was led by Chris Warren’s 15 points, but Warren was just 5-for-17 from the floor.
“This was a good win for us. We know what a good team we just beat,” Stansbury said. “I thought our zone lengthened the game. Jarvis protected the paint, and our point guard took over at his position.”
Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal