Birthday boy Arnett Moultrie eats up Zona

NEW YORK -- The night before the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer title game, Meo Stansbury had an important assignment for her husband, Rick.

She needed him to broker a taste test. Friday was Arnett Moultrie's 21st birthday and Mrs. Stansbury wanted to make sure she chose the exact right cookie to celebrate.

“Well I liked all three,’’ Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. “But I told him he wasn’t getting any cookies until after the game was over.’’

In the end, Moultrie chose chocolate chip. Nothing fancy, nothing exotic, just good.

Sort of like Moultrie.

The Mississippi State forward will not stun you with his flash. He won’t overpower you with his finesse.

He will just beat you down.

Usually it’s on the boards. But on his birthday, Moultrie offered up a special treat, a double-double beatdown of 19 points and 10 rebounds that lifted Mississippi State to a 67-57 victory over No. 16 Arizona, securing the program's first in-season tourney title in more than decade.

Moultrie, who had eight points and eight boards against 18th-ranked Texas A&M on Thursday, took home a nice little birthday souvenir from New York -- tournament MVP honors.

“It’s an amazing feeling,’’ Moultrie said. “The Garden is the biggest stage you can play on.’’

The beauty of Moultrie, though, is that he’s more than happy being a supporting cast member. He is Dennis Rodman without the makeup and the look-at-me-me-me, a voracious rebounder who has not just an instinct for the ball but an insatiable desire to go get it.

In five games this season, Moultrie has pulled down double-digit boards all but once and is averaging a ridiculous 11.2 rebounds a game.

And on a team full of stars, some of them star-crossed, that makes him the perfect complement and antidote for the Bulldogs.

A year ago, Mississippi State was known more for its off-court drama than its on-court success. Moultrie presents a steadying influence and the sort of selflessness the Bullies need.

“I don’t know how many nights he’s going to be our leading scorer, but I do know that one thing he’s going to bring every night is an energy to go rebound that basketball,’’ Stansbury said. “Not many guys have that. You tell a guy to go get that ball and he doesn’t want to hear it. Arnett wants to hear it.’’

Moultrie came to Mississippi State from UTEP, transferring out of El Paso after his coach, Tony Barbee, moved on to Auburn. A big pickup, he still existed in the shadow of the enigmatic talent of Renardo Sidney.

Now he and Sidney combine for a formidable pair in the paint. Mississippi State didn’t command the boards entirely -- it outrebounded Arizona by only five -- but it controlled the paint. The Bulldogs outscored the Wildcats 38-24 there.

Moultrie and Sidney (8 points) scored themselves, but their presence also cleared the lane for their guards to drive and score or drive and dish.

“Their two big guys are enormous,’’ Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “But Arnett, in particular, was the difference in this game.’’

The big question, of course, is what does this all mean for Mississippi State? This long has been a team stuffed with talent -- Sidney and Dee Bost, on paper, should be one of the more formidable inside-outside pairs in the country.

Except it’s never quite panned out, as the team has been done in by infighting, suspensions and Sidney’s wishy-washy commitment.

Five games and two strong ones in New York do not a season make, but all signs right now point to an MSU team that needs to be added to the SEC conversation -- provided the Bulldogs can maintain it.

Mississippi State started 7-2 a year ago before skidding through a 1-5 stretch.

“Everyone wants to win,’’ Bost said. “That’s all that’s on anyone’s mind.’’

Well, that and celebratory cookies.