By MATTHEW STEVENS
It’s fitting that the first person Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury thanked after the game on his way into the tunnel was team trainer Scott Johnson.
That man earned his paycheck Wednesday night.
“Give Scotty an assist tonight,” Stansbury said. “He’s got the toughest job on campus right now.”
Mississippi State didn’t have its starting small forward, thought it would be without its starting shooting guard and still managed to beat Arkansas 67-56 in Starkville for the 11th straight time.
The shorthanded Bulldogs dominated Arkansas, who has now lost three in a row and after a key matchup, has fallen from second to fourth in the Southeastern Conference Western Division.
“This was one of the most guttiest performances of the season for us,” Stansbury said. “I liked our togetherness out there. All that mattered to the guys on the floor was getting the win.”
With Ravern Johnson being in street clothes following his indefinite suspension and Riley Benock being considered “highly doubtful” to play at all with a severe shoulder injury, Mississippi State used its eighth different starting lineup for its third win in four tries at Humphrey Coliseum Wednesday night.
During the opening tip, Stansbury and Benock had a conversation side-by-side on the bench that ended with a pat on the thigh and Benock being the first substitution off the bench less than four minutes into the game.
“That’s when I knew he’d go,” Stansbury said. “It was a very unselfish act to do what he could to help this team win.”
State’s 6-foot-4 guard would play 22 minutes without taking a single shot from the field after injuring his right shoulder in a rebounding drill Tuesday in practice.
“I really came out for warm-ups and didn’t expect to play and never thought I would play,” Benock said. “Right before the game I went to coach and told him I wanted to go and I couldn’t hurt it anymore.”
MSU officials confirmed Benock took a numbing injection in his shoulder from the team physician Dr. Scott Jones and right before the opening tip is when Stansbury agreed to put his guard in the game.
“He’s a tough dude and he knew we needed bodies so it’s impressive to think about what he did taking that shot and then playing,” MSU redshirt freshman guard Shaun Smith said.
The Battletown, Ky., native did get a key offensive rebound late in the game off a missed free throw and sank a pair from the charity stripe to help preserve the win. The senior guard said he should be medically cleared to play Saturday at Auburn (6 p.m., SEC Network).
Offensively, the Bulldogs (13-10, 5-4 in SEC) relied on point guard Dee Bost and his game-high 18 points as the junior switched from the lead guard to shooting guard positions throughout the evening.
Bost, who came in averaging 17.5 points per game against the Razorbacks in his career, was 7-for-12 from the field on a injured right Achilles tendon that he’s been playing through for a nearly a week.
“He’s going to compete and fight every night – that’s what he does,” Stansbury said.
Bost became the 34th player in school history score 1,000 points in his MSU career.
Finally Scott Johnson was forced in the second half to check on the left knee pain of sophomore forward Renardo Sidney. The injury didn’t stop the 6-foot-10 post presence from posting his second-straight double-double effort with 12 points and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes of action.
Stansbury credited the defensive effort of role players Jalen Steele and Shaun Smith to the Razorbacks fourth-lowest point total of the season.
“It came down to us simply not making shots,” Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey said. “We just couldn’t score the ball.”
Arkansas’ leading scorer Rodney Clarke was shut out in the first half and ended the evening with just nine points on 3-for-11 shooting. That defensive responsibility fell mostly on freshman guard Jalen Steele.
“I thought Jalen did about as well as you can do on Clarke,” Stansbury said. “For the most part, he didn’t get a good look all night.”
Mississippi State went without a bucket for the final 9:39 of the contest and still managed to grind out a victory in front of 3,121 fans at Humphrey Coliseum. However, on the defensive end, the 56 points were the fewest allowed in SEC play this season.
Despite only an eight-man rotation, the 17 points off the bench for Mississippi State were most since a 85-66 victory over Auburn on Jan. 16 and fourth most on the team.
“Our role whenever we get in the game hasn’t changed from the perspective that coach still expects us to play great defense and knock down shots,’ Smith said. “The only difference now is the amount of minutes we got tonight.”
With the victory, MSU maintained its second-place spot in the Western Division, while Arkansas (14-9. 4-6) slid down to fourth in the six-team division.