They also came too close to leaving with a major upset, rallying from a very slow start to catch up in the second half and even lead 60-58 with less than seven minutes remaining. For Bulldog veterans of other pre-SEC season flops in previous Decembers, it seemed awfully uncomfortable déjà vu-ish.
But not this time, or this team. "Somebody had to step up down the stretch," said senior guard Dee Bost. "We just had to find a way to win."
State did because they stuck to their guns, and gunners. That being Bost and freshman forward Rodney Hood, who combined for 13 points the rest of the way to make sure this would not upset Bulldog ambitions.
"They just took over," said Stansbury. "Those two guys weren't going to let us lose. Rodney went and made some plays, Dee made a couple of huge, tough shots."
Including the answering three-pointer by Bost at 6:14 for a lead State didn't lose. Hood delivered four quick points before a Bost layup at 2:38 finally made it a two-turn margin, and the Owls did the Dogs a favor as guard Alex Tucker missed both his free throws. Florida Atlantic only got within a bucket once more, at 1:22 on Raymond Taylor's fourth trey of the night. But it was Bost, in the 38th minute he was on the court, who again responded with a driving layup at 0:46.
Bost finished as game-high scorer with 22 points, though he was just 1-of-7 at the arc and had more turnovers (5) than assists (3). Then again he was running on fumes by the end of the long evening, as guard Brian Bryant remained on suspension another game. This also forced guard Jalen Steele, who took Bryant's starting job, to put in 38 minutes as well with a dozen points.
But the true iron man was Hood. Eleven games into his first college season, the small forward played very big indeed and notched not just his first double-double at State with 19 points and ten rebounds. He never left the court, putting in a full forty minutes.
"Coach told us at halftime you can't get tired," Hood said. "I had to push through it."
The other and obvious factor which turned a physical mismatch of SEC vs. Sun Belt sized-squads was another Bulldog confined to the bench. Forward Arnett Moultrie with his 16 point, 11 rebound averages sat this one out, officially for tendinitis of an unspecified knee. He was in uniform and paying attention to proceedings, as Stansbury said Moultrie was available at extreme need. Even falling behind late, and watching his team tire fast, wasn't extreme enough.
"We darn sure needed him, but it got so late we weren't going to do it," the coach said. Not even with center Renardo Sidney able to put in just 20 minutes, less even than his season average, and making half his shots including a trey, was Moultrie activated. Sidney's minutes were quality with ten total points and eight rebounds, along with three blocked shots. Center Wendell Lewis hit all his three shots to tally eight points with six boards, playing 37 minutes.
FAU's Taylor kept the Owls in the hunt with his 20 points off the bench, while forward Pablo Bertone added 14 points with two treys and forward Kore White 12 points. But FAU Coach Mike Jarvis knew where his team let this one get away. At the foul line.
"Free throws cost us the game," he said. "It's ridiculous, 7-of-18 from the free throw line. That really hurt us in the game." State was 17-of-22 by contrast.
There were lots of foul foul shots in the opening minutes as both teams started sloppily on offense. At least the Bulldogs had better defensive focus and held FAU to 2-of-14 shooting, while building a 19-6 lead. The Owls somehow steadied to manage a short run of their own that staved off quick defeat, but still trailed 39-29 at halftime.
Except they had hit a longball at the buzzer, which didn't seem like much at the time. Yet FAU came out the locker room as if there'd been no break, closing the gap to 41-39 in less than two minutes. The Bulldogs were able to re-assert themselves briefly for a 54-44 lead before the legs began slowing at each end. Not that Stansbury was giving any real breaks now.
"That's an easy decision, just look down the bench," he said. Foul trouble for Sidney and just plain struggles by freshman guard Deville Smith—"he wasn't very good tonight," Stansbury said—meant riding the regulars to the end. It worked. "That's one of those games that could have very easily slipped away, against a team that is picked to win the Sunbelt," Stansbury said.
And, a team that had knocked off another short-handed State squad one season ago here in the Hump. "Last year we kind of slipped up against them, this year we had to win," said Steele. "We were short two people but we had to step it up and win this game."
They did. Now the Bulldogs take their act on the road for a true away game, the first of the season. State visits Detroit on Saturday with a 11:00am CT tipoff. They will have a Wednesday workout, then a free throwing session on the court; and practice for real Thursday afternoon before leaving.
This time with their duct tape in the equipment bag, just in case.