NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP)—Barry Stewart was wide open in front of the Mississippi State bench, so coach Rick Stansbury discretely pointed to him.
Jamont Gordon made the pass, Stewart made the shot and finally the Bulldogs were in control.
And, someone besides Charles Rhodes was contributing to the offense.
Rhodes scored a career-high 34 points and the eighth-seeded Bulldogs overcame a 13-point, second-half deficit for a 76-69 victory over ninth-seeded Oregon on Friday night. Stewart added 16 points, all in the second half.
“If you’re a shooter, you keep shooting. You don’t lose confidence in your shot,” Stewart said. “You’ve just got to keep shooting and they fell tonight.”
Rhodes kept Mississippi State from being blown out. So did Oregon’s shooting. The Ducks went 9-of-38 from 3-point range, including 2-of-21 in the second half.
The Bulldogs trailed 41-28 after Malik Hairston’s 3-pointer at the start of the second half, but Oregon (18-14) didn’t make another 3 until the final seconds.
“We had a lot of open shots,” Oregon’s Maarty Leunen said. “We just weren’t able to make it, that’s all.”
The Ducks missed short and they missed off to the side. They even had one rattle in and out. Once they lost their shooting touch, their offense went into disarray.
Rhodes scored six straight points to start the Bulldogs’ rally—part of an 8-0 run that cut the lead to five. Mississippi State then fell behind by nine before Stewart made a 3-pointer with 13:21 remaining—the Bulldogs’ first of the game after 12 straight misses.
Until that shot, only four players had scored for Mississippi State.
“I thought I was going to have to go out there and shoot some treys,” the 6-foot-8 Rhodes said. “But my percentage isn’t good so I wasn’t going to do that to the team.”
Stewart finished with four 3-pointers. His third pulled the Bulldogs to 52-51. Rhodes then put Mississippi State (23-10) ahead with a dunk.
“After the first 3 went down, think it helped us a lot,” Stewart said. “Gave us a lot of momentum, it gave us a lot of energy tonight.”
Before Stewart’s final 3-pointer, Stansbury quietly pointed to him, as if trying not to alert the defense. The shot put Mississippi State up 66-60.
Gordon scored eight points on 2-of-14 shooting, but the 6-foot-4 point guard added 11 rebounds and nine assists.
“He impacts the game in so many ways,” Stansbury said. “When they were going to their money man, Hairston, Jamont stepped up. I don’t think he got scored on.”
Everyone picked up the pace defensively. Hairston scored 22 points, but the Ducks shot only 34 percent from the field. That’s about what teams usually shoot against the Bulldogs, who won the SEC West this year on the strength of an intimidating defense.
Seven of the Ducks’ first nine shots of the game were 3-pointers as they kept their distance from Mississippi State shot blocker Jarvis Varnado. Oregon shot 3-pointers in transition and from its set offense, using a variety of perimeter screens to set them up. The Ducks made seven in the first half, including 5-foot-6 Tajuan Porter’s high-arching effort in the final seconds that gave Oregon a 38-28 halftime lead.
But the Ducks couldn’t keep it up and finished a disappointing season in which they failed to build on last year’s run to the NCAA quarterfinals.
Varnado finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and four blocks for the Bulldogs. He’s now blocked 152 shots this season, five fewer than Shaquille O’Neal when Shaq set the Southeastern Conference record in 1991-92.
While Varnado was patrolling the inside, Rhodes scored enough to keep Mississippi State in it, much to Oregon coach Ernie Kent’s chagrin.
“Probably the only thing different we could have done is have a bigger-body player like him that could have guarded him,” said Kent, who is still a game short of tying the school record for career victories. “Memphis has players like that, but we don’t have players like that.”
Mississippi State will face top-seeded Memphis in the second round of the South Regional on Sunday. The matchup will be the Bulldogs’ first against their regional rival since 1984.
The Bulldogs are making their fifth NCAA tournament appearance under Stansbury. He’s now taken them to the second round four times, but never further than that.