The Bulldogs, rolling right along before their last outing, were tested by highly-regarded Conference-USA power UAB which returned four starters from last year's 21-9 edition.
Hardly anything surprised Mississippi State's Rick Stansbury in the thrilling, 86-84, comeback win Saturday over UAB, setting off a wild celebration in Starkville, the second major "roof-lifting" episode during the afternoon of the intensely-played contest.
Stansbury took everything in stride, everything except the spectacular, 38-point effort by the Blazers' talented preseason All-Conference guard Morris "Mo" Finley, who at times simply took over the game.
No doubt, the contest between the two perfect-record teams was perhaps destined to go down to the final seconds, and it did.
Mississippi State junior transfer 6-8 center-forward Lawrence Roberts was one of the heroes for the Maroon & White. Getting free on the blocks to gather in a pass from Timmy Bowers with roughly six seconds remaining, Roberts swished through the game-winning basket on a short hook in the lane with a tick or two under four seconds left in the game.
Finley took the inbound pass and attempted a desperation shot at half court that was off the mark as the buzzer sounded and the crowd of over 6,000 erupted. The fans had earlier welcomed new Mississippi State University football coach Sylvester Croom to the "Bulldog Family" with a standing ovation, a crescendo of cheers and a salute from the MSU Band.
As the players on the Bulldogs' bench began jumping with joy, freshman guard Gary Ervin raced to center court, where Roberts was receiving hundreds of congratulator high-five's and slaps on the back, and leaped into the arms of one of the Dogs' newest heroes.
Bowers, one of the players the play was set up for on a ball screen, explained how the game-winning play unfolded.
"We had a ball screen and I was supposed to get in the gap, but I was cut off and I saw Lawrence was open and I got him the ball, and he put it in. And yes! I'm tired," he said of the Dogs hectic four-game run.
"But we should have some time to work on some things now," explained Bowers, so smooth in transition or anywhere on the floor and a team leader.
The Bulldogs had to come from behind in their last outing against the Blazers of C-USA. MSU overcame a nine-point, 73-64, deficit in the second half.
"We were down by eight or nine with about eight minutes to go, but our kids didn't quit," acknowledged Stansbury.
"We had a chance to fold, but our kids didn't quit. They found a way down the stretch to make basketball plays."
The Bulldogs keep edging up in the Associated Press' men's college basketball poll which was released Monday.
The Southeastern Conference is well represented in the top 25 teams headed by No. 1 Florida (5-0) and No. 8 Kentucky (4-0), with six additional teams, including Mississippi State receiving votes. A strong endorsement for the SEC, Florida and Kentucky are ranked 1-2 in the USA Today-ESPN college basketball poll.
Mississippi State received 14 votes in the latest AP Poll, the same number as Florida State and Georgia, and three more votes than the Bulldogs had in last week's balloting. Others league teams receiving votes were Vanderbilt 36, Auburn 15, South Carolina 8, and LSU 5.
MSU kept its record unblemished with the comeback win. Bowers, one of four MSU players scoring in double-figures, twice gave the Bulldogs a one-point lead, in the final two minutes, 82-81, on a layup, and 84-83 on a jumper with 1:11 remaining only to see the Blazers knot the score 84-84 on a free throw by "Bo" Finley.
Winsome Frazier got off a shot just before the shot clock expired on the Bulldogs' next-to-last possession, but the ball bounded off the rim and Roberts came down with the rebound and a new shot clock. Following a timeout, Bowers got the ball to Roberts on the blocks for the game-winner.
"I think everybody witnessed what we knew coming into this game," Stansbury said after the non-conference bout with the Blazers that was televised by FOX Sports Net.
The Bulldogs sixth-year head coach reminded those who may have forgotten that UAB was coming off a 21-win season, an appearance in the C-USA championship game followed by a couple of NIT triumphs. Mike Anderson's Blazers also had four starters returning.
"We knew just how good they (UAB) were going to be, but again, you never expect someone to come in here and have a game like "Mo" Finley did," said Stansbury. "That's just unbelievable. That's all I can say. He's a great player, a nephew of George Brooks (former MSU standout). I thought their whole team shot the ball well.
"On the other hand, give our kids some credit," added Stansbury. "We were in foul trouble in the first half. Lawrence (Roberts) wasn't able to play much, but we survived the first half."
Bowers and Frazier had 18 points each behind Roberts with a team-best 19, including 5-of-5 off the line down the stretch. Roberts just missed a double-double as he also had nine rebounds in 27 minutes on the floor with his playing time limited by foul problems.
Senior 6-8 forward Branden Vincent had a game-high 12 rebounds and eight points. Junior transfer Shane Power played the most minutes (30) he has played this season since coming off the injury list and finished with 10 points, including 4-of-4 off the line. The Dogs finished a perfect 10-of-10 from the line down the stretch.
Marcus Campbell, slowed by a sinus condition, played but 15 minutes. The 7-0 center had six points and three rebounds. Senior center Lincoln Smith was 2-of-2 off the line while freshman Dietric Slater was 1-of-1 from the field.
Mississippi State out rebounded UAB by ten, 43-33. Both teams had 17 turnovers. MSU had three blocks and 10 steals, including four by Bowers and two by Roberts. The Dogs were 26-of-43 off the line.
Tip-off for Saturday's return bout with Xavier is set for 7 p.m. MSU surprised the Musketeers of the Atlantic 10 Conference by way of Cincinnati, Ohio, 71-61, last Dec. 14 at New York City in one of the premier sports palaces in the country - Madison Square Garden.
Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org