STARKVILLE — The best.
The mere inclusion of definites in a statement about any player”s abilities speaks volumes.
In his fourth year at Mississippi State, Jarvis Varnado has impacted college basketball games like nearly no other.
On Thursday night, the senior center added a new weapon to his already impressive array of talents.
Varnado had 17 points, 12 rebounds, 10 blocked shots, and one key steal in the final minute to help MSU hold on to defeat Arkansas 82-80 before a crowd of 8,339 at Humphrey Coliseum.
“It”s just a tremendous blessing,” Varnado said of the triple-double. “I thank God for allowing me my abilities.”
Dee Bost added 20 points, seven rebounds, and six assists, and Barry Stewart and Ravern Johnson had 12 and 11 points, respectively, to help the Bulldogs (14-3, 2-0) win their Southeastern Conference home opener.
“He was tremendous tonight,” Arkansas coach John Pelphrey said of Varnado. “The 10 blocks are the only ones that get recorded, but there are other shots that get challenged. That”s a lot of opportunities.”
Pelphrey said Varnado was probably the difference in the game. He joked Varnado didn”t block any 3-pointers, but he had his hands on or near just about everything else that ventured into the lane.
Pelphrey, a former player for Rick Pitino at the University of Kentucky and an assistant coach for Billy Donovan at the University of Florida, has been around the SEC long enough to know Varnado ranks with the best in the country. His words of praise meant even more on a night in which MSU led by as many as 19 in the first half and then hung on as the Razorbacks (7-9, 0-1) nearly shot their way back into the lead.
“He”s a special player,” Pelphrey said. “He also made some good plays on our pick-and-roll drives. He kind of got to a spot where he kind of leveled our guard off and his reach is also good that he was able to make some plays on some passes. That”s the reason he is arguably the best defensive player, maybe ever to play in this league.”
Varnado”s performance was his second career triple-double, and the fourth in MSU history. His first triple-double (double figures in three categories) came against Kentucky in 2008.
Varnado”s 10 blocks shots moved him past former Wake Forest standout Tim Duncan into third place on the NCAA”s all-tim list. He leads the nation with 90 blocks this season, and now has 484 for his career. He is 52 shy of breaking the all-time mark of 535 held by former Louisiana-Monroe standout Wojciech Mydra (1998-02).
Varnado, who started his 100th game in his 122nd game at MSU, is eight blocked shots from tying former Colgate standout Adonal Foyle (492) for second place on the all-time list.
Arkansas forward Marshawn Powell (game-high 25 points) said Varnado”s ability to affect a game didn”t surprise him. The freshman had 21 of his points in the second half to help the Razorbacks rally, but he said it was difficult to negate Varnado”s shot-blocking tendencies. Still, Arkansas had a 42-30 edge in points in the paint.
“The guy is super long,” Powell said. “When you think you have a shot, he comes out of nowhere and just catches it. We were just putting the ball right there where he could get it easily. He wasn”t even jumping for half of the blocks. We weren”t giving him any head fakes or nothing like that, so we were playing right into his hands.”
Arkansas cut the deficit to 79-74 on a hook shot by Mike Washington with 3 minutes, 4 seconds to play. From there, Varnado took center stage. He contested and forced a missed 3-pointer by Rotnei Clarke and he defended Washington and forced another miss in the lane.
Still trailing by five points with 1:29 remaining, Arkansas came out of a timeout and tried to get the ball inside, but Varnado used his reach to steal a pass from Courtney Fortson (20 points, six assists) intended for Washington.
“He was huge for us,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. “He scored the basketball and rebounded it and blocked shots.”
Bost and Phil Turner combined to hit 3 of 6 free throws in the final 25.6 seconds, and Turner made a steal off an inbounds pass after Bost”s first make to help preserve the victory.
“We put Phil in in the last minute to go make a play and he made a huge play,” Stansbury said.
Bost used an aggressive mind-set to take the basketball to the goal. Coming off a career-high tying 25 points Saturday in a victory against then-No. 14 Mississippi, he finished 6 of 15 from the field (6 of 11 from the free-throw line).
Bost said he isn”t surprised that teams continue to take the ball at Varnado.
“What are they going to do, shoot jump shots all night?” Bost said.
That strategy might work better, especially against one of the best at blocking shots in NCAA history.
n NOTES: MSU shot 61.3 percent (19 of 31) in the first half and led 51-39 at halftime. The Bulldogs had only four assists and nine turnovers (14 overall in both areas) in the second half. … Stansbury credited the defense of Stewart, who spent much of the evening guarding Clarke, Arkansas” leading scorer at 19.4 points per game. Clarke, a 3-point specialist, had only six points on 2-of-9 shooting. “Barry Stewart did one unbelievable job on Clarke,” Stansbury said. “It probably was the best job he has done on him.” … Romero Osby had nine points, two rebounds, and two assists in 17 minutes. … MSU improved to 9-0 when it shoots 45 percent or better from the field. It shot 47.4 percent (27 of 57), while Arkansas shot 40.8 percent (31 of 76).
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.