"We just told each other go out there with the same mentality we did the games in New York," said senior guard and leading Bulldog scorer Dee Bost. "Being ranked is a good thing but at the same time we have to go out there and produce."
Mississippi State was able to regain some of their mentality, and momentum, as they had in knocking off a pair of ranked opponents last week in Madison Square Garden to take the 2K Coaches Classic. It just took a little longer than would have been expected given the mismatches in records, talents, and everything else that matters. In fact the Warhawks delivered a few flurries of their own to open each half.
"It was a game all about runs," said guard Bryant. "We're going to have runs, the other team is going to have theirs. We have to keep our composure and not let them have as many runs." Or have longer and better runs as it turned out.
State was even able to get the job done shorthanded, or just plain short. Both starting post players, Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney, sat out this game with—officially and respectively—tendinitis and a wrist problem. Their absence showed in some aspects but even without these on court the Warhawks were still out-manned and over-matched. That they kept things competitive for long was a credit to their effort, as well as what MSU Coach Rick Stansbury called a "hangover" from last week's tournament trip.
"We knew it would be a struggle a little bit for several reasons," said Stansbury. "But I was proud of the way our guys stepped up and responded. We were down a couple of players, and Louisiana-Monroe is a team that makes you guard."
But once the Bulldogs got their guard up, as well as their guards up to speed, the outcome wasn't in doubt. Bost led State with 21 points, a dozen of that coming from the three-point line, with five assists. Freshman forward Hood more than picked up post slack, sliding to a big-forward position and providing 20 points with eight rebounds and even sticking a pair of treys.
Bryant however was the hottest sparkplug at both ends. The senior notched his first college double-double with 17 points and a career-best ten rebounds, along with four assists and three steals. Not only did he pick up his pace, during that breakout run Bryant scored consecutive dunks punctuated by woofing at victimized opponents. For which he was almost—almost—apologetic afterwards.
"I got caught up in just showing a lot of high energy. That passed on to my teammates and we got on the run."
Louisiana-Monroe just didn't have the post personnel to take any advantage of the missing MSU big men. Center Fabio Ribeiro managed a single bucket and five rebounds. So the visitors had to rely on aggressive guard play and at times it worked well. Fred Brown led ULM with 21 points and Marcellis Hansberry added 13. But each period had its trend of some good early Hawk shooting followed by a steady fade…by no coincidence coming when State's backcourt got serious about guarding.
"I thought the second half my two seniors really stepped up and made some defensive plays," said Stansbury. Bost and Bryant had six steals between them and ULM ended up with 14 turnovers.
"Coach just said we've got to pick it up, don't look at the record or name of the team," Bost said. "We just have got set the tone on the defensive end."
Louisiana-Monroe had the early hot hand, sticking a trio of treys and bolting to a 11-5 lead. Inside eight minutes they still were in front 23-15 due to some tough layups in traffic against a flat-footed Dog defense. Fortunately for State, the Warhawks went frigid on even easy shots with a series of missed around the occasional forced turnover. It was the opening the Bulldogs needed. G Deville Smith started a 13-point run with a trey, followed by six quick Bost points. Hood converted consecutive chances of his own for a 31-26 halftime lead. The home team hadn't been called for a foul until 1:47 of the opening period.
ULM caught up and even led by a bucket in the second half, the last time 41-39 after a short Hansberry jumper. Smith stuck a three to get the lead back, which was Bryant's cue. He drove for one dunk, then slammed his own steal to swing everything in State's direction. Hood accelerated the run with a short jumper, then a long one for a 51-41 margin and Monroe timeout.
"It took me a while," said Hood, as he dealt with the 1-3-1 or 2-3 zones ULM tried. "At the end of the first half l tried to attack the basket, help out and rebound." This got the rookie into a rhythm with his jumpshot following, as he thrived at his old high school big-forward position. "It's not that bad because they were small, too. I could play free and attack like that."
"I think we just wore them down," said Stansbury. "They weren't near as efficient from that three-point line, they made three the first three minutes and just made three the rest of the game."
State's lead peaked, twice, at 20 points before Stansbury cleared the bench. The same one where Sidney and Moultrie remained. "Arnett was available, if it got so we thought we had to have him I was going to play him," Stansbury said. "But it never got to that point. The knee's been bothering him a bunch and the only way it gets better is rest." He said Sidney, who wore a brace on his left wrist, remains day-by-day.
"I know everything that has been said, he's got a hurt wrist. Could he have went today, if it was an emergency I don't know." Nor does the coach know if either will be available, or if so then activated, for Friday's 7:00 home game with Tennessee-Martin. By then the Bulldogs ought to be entirely over the New York hangover, as well as getting used to life with a number in front of the name again.
"Now we know we have a bull's eye on the back because we beat ranked teams," said Bryant. "Now they're trying to beat us."