Stansbury wasn't joking about being in survival mode Tuesday night, no matter how lightweight the opposition. State was playing without leading scorer Ravern Johnson, as the senior was sitting a one-game suspension for missing too many fall semester classes. And a short-handed roster only aggravated concerns over cobbling together an effective lineup for the fourth consecutive contest.
Yet with the top gunner sidelined, the Bulldogs got a big—literally—boost inside. Center Elgin Bailey overpowered the smaller, skinnier ASU posts for a season-best 13 points and seven rebounds. "Once I got the news Ray wasn't going to play I just had to lift my guys up and play hard, give more effort," said Bailey.
Senior guard Riley Benock also played hard, for 35 minutes at that, providing 11 points and three treys. Junior guard Brian Bryant added 11 as well, while forward Kodi Augustus matched nine points with as many rebounds reinforcing the frontcourt. On the perimeter Stansbury mixed and matched all evening, save only for Benock, to keep fresh legs at each end of the court. "Survival mode," he repeated.
"Elgin and Brandon Bolen gave us some grit, and Riley has been consistent. He knocked down a couple of shots that were big for us."
Not that State shot so well at 44%. But that was leagues ahead of Alabama State which made just 29% for the evening and barely 20% in the second half. In fact the Hornets missed 18 of their first 20 shots in the second period, not all of the guarded, which allowed the Bulldogs to creep steadily away.
"I thought our guys the second half did one thing you have to to win, they showed a little grit," Stansbury said. "We were tired, playing without Ray, a lot of things stacked against us."
Even then the weary Bulldogs began well as twice Benock hit jumpers for a seven-point lead, and Augustus kept the margin at six with his trey. Still the Hornets kept scrapping and with five-straight points from Ivan Johnson they were within 24-23. It took five shots before ASU took the lead, on a trey by Noel at 1:55, and they were up 28-26 at intermission.
Benock changed the lead back with three to open the new half, and stuck another for a 35-31 margin. Layups from Bryant and Bailey stretched the advantage as ASU had more turnovers than baskets through 14:00. Many more, as they went from 15:24 to 7:44 without throwing ball through hoop, and that was a putback by Jeff Middlebrooks. At the other end State got buckets from Brandon Bolen and Wendell Lewis for a 51-35 lead by 7:30.
"They were hitting shots in the first half," Bailey said. "At halftime we said we've got to pick it up, play tough and do the job on defense and the offense would come."
The margin peaked at 21 points on a Lewis dunk before ASU threw in some of the long shots they'd spent most of the half missing. Yet none of them pushed a single Hornet into double-digits; Kenderek Washington was the scoring leader with nine points and Johnson came off the bench for eight more. Forward Ivory White had seven rebounds and four points.
"We got a six-point separation pretty quick that second half, and it's easier to play with a cushion," Stansbury said. "And they had a hard time making shots. I thought our zone kept them out of the paint, and they didn't shoot it particularly well."
Now the Bulldogs have to leave home for one more consecutive-stretch game. Fortunately for them it won't count, an exhibition with Belhaven at Jackson's Mississippi Coliseum (7:00, no radio broadcast). And, it is all but a ‘home' game for State as a whole and one Dog in particular. Sophomore center Renardo Sidney makes his long-awaited Bulldog debut Wednesday evening in his home town. Also, as a between-semester exhibition, junior guard Dee Bost can play this time; he won't make a formal return from is own suspension until SEC season.
"It ought to be a little excitement, Dee and Shug going to play," Stansbury said. "I don't think those guys are going in fatigued and relaxed. Hopefully we can get enough confidence from Dee, he makes things easier for everybody else."
"I'm just ready to see my little brother Sidney play!" Bailey said. "I told him I wanted him to play all forty minutes!"
After playing all nine games so far on campus, Wednesday begins a long road stretch for State as they go from Memphis to the Bahamas for a December 18 match with Virginia Tech. From there the Bulldogs transition to Hawaii for a tournament, then stop en route back home to play St. Mary's in Las Vegas.
SEC season tips off January 8 in The Hump with Alabama.