Varnado leads Miss. St. to 74-66 win over Alabama
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP)—Jarvis Varnado has a sixth sense that has made him one of college basketball’s most imposing defenders.
The Mississippi State center can’t explain why, but he can feel it when he’s about to block a shot.
And Wednesday night, as he sent eight shots back where they came from to break the NCAA career mark, Varnado knew something big was coming.
“I just got on this hot spell, like a shooter gets on a hot streak,” Varnado said. “I just went on a hot streak and once I got going, I just kept saying, ‘Do it some more, do it some more.”’
Varnado finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds to lead Mississippi State to a 20-win season with a 74-66 victory over Alabama.
His 534th and 535th blocks came on consecutive Alabama possessions and turned the momentum in a back-and-forth game. Then, No. 536 broke Wojciech Mydra’s record, which the Louisiana-Monroe center set from 1998-2002.
More important than the record, Varnado said, is the bump it gives the Bulldogs (20-8, 8-5 Southeastern Conference), who sent the Crimson Tide (14-13, 4-9) to its sixth straight road loss. The Bulldogs aren’t considered a lock for the NCAA tournament, but the win gave them a one-game lead in the SEC West with three games left and their 16th 20-win season.
“We’re kind of fighting for our lives to get to the tournament,” Varnado said. “I was just trying to do whatever I need to do to help us get to the tournament.”
With the crowd on its feet chanting Varnado’s nickname, “Swat,” much of the way, he had six second-half blocks and used his intimidating presence to help the Bulldogs pull away.
The 6-foot-9 center from Brownsville, Tenn., had blocks at 12:42 and 12:25 on JaMychal Green. The second was pulled in by Ravern Johnson, who drove the length of the court and dunked to push the lead to 47-39 with 12:18 left.
That was part of a 13-6 run in which Varnado dominated. He had a steal to set up Mississippi State’s next basket and picked up a loose ball for a dunk to give the Bulldogs their biggest lead, 56-45 with 9:17 left.
“First, it gets the crowd going and your emotions going,” Bulldogs forward Kodi Augustus said. “We get out and run. It gets me up. Who wouldn’t be up after a block comes out of nowhere?”
Varnado then stopped a quick Alabama run with another dunk and got his eighth block on a driving Mikhail Torrance with 4:28 left. But Mississippi State couldn’t put away Alabama, led by Torrance’s 23 points.
The Crimson rallied with a 10-2 run to make it 61-59 with 3:50 left. That’s when Dee Bost, who led Mississippi State with 22 points, stepped up with consecutive 3-pointers at 3:11 and 2:25. Ravern Johnson hit another to make it 70-61 with 1:28 left, sealing the win.
“There was a lot of excitement in the building and a lot of emotion in that game,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “Our guys could’ve got caught up in it. But it was a two-point game with 3 minutes to play. They just made the difficult shots. Who knows what would’ve happened if some of those shots didn’t fall.”
The Bulldogs hit five of six shots to open the second half and 15 of 25 in the second half, including two 3-pointers from Barry Stewart. That pushed him past Darryl Wilson’s school record of 258 and made the night even more special. Varnado and Stewart are good friends who played on the same Nashville, Tenn., AAU team and were freshman roommates.
The co-captains, who share the Mississippi State record for games played, were honored after the game with much of the crowd staying behind and chanting.
“One thing those records don’t tell you is how good of people they are,” Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. “I’ve been very blessed for four years to have those guys on our side.”