That the Bulldogs will be playing the late game, for a trip to the tournament finals in New York City, is largely due to Harper, according to Coach Rick Stansbury. "Harper came off the bench and gave us great toughness, and that was the difference in the game."
Harper gave more than toughness, too. He entered the affair at 15:37, his first action since playing in the 2003 NCAA Regional…ironically on this same Jefferson Civic Center Court. A knee injury in September 2003 sidelined him all last season, so when Harper was sent in he had a year's pent-up energy to expend, and teammates that needed the charge.
"It just felt good to get up-and-down the court and being out there again, instead of just watching," Harper said. Not only did he run the court, he got on the scoreboard with 11 first-half points to keep his team in the game.
"It seemed we were playing lackadaisical at first so I tried to give some intensity to the team," Harper said. "It so happened I was scoring."
He added just six more points in the last half, but it was Harper's scrambling layup at 16:37 that put State in front for the first time, 29-28. Before that the Bulldogs had trailed by as much as eight points in the first period.
The Stags (0-1) did not fold after the favored Dogs went in front, and did regain as much as a four-point lead at 35-31 with 13:06 left. But Harper's energy rubbed off on his team, on both ends, and State eventually take control. A three-point play by guard Gary Ervin at 11:28 started a 10-2 run that pushed the Bulldogs in front 41-37 by 8:41, when guard Winsome Frazier canned a pair of free throws after a Piotr Stelmach trey.
Fairfield did get back within a bucket at 41-39, before Harper fed Wesley Morgan for a layup. After three Stag misses Frazier got loose for another layup and 45-39 lead at 6:48. Frazier and Ervin drained three-point jumpers for a 51-43 lead at 1:51, though it took a couple of free shots—the last by Harper at five seconds, letting him surpass his 16 points against LSU in 2002—to seal the win and avoid the upset.
And the Stags had a good shot at knocking the #12-ranked Bulldogs off their poll-perch, as State scuffled through a ragged debut. MSU was playing without the services of All-America forward Lawrence Roberts, under NCAA suspension for the first game and sidelined for Friday after surgery to repair a broken nose. His absence was obvious from the start, but so was a lack of cohesion in the altered lineup.
"We couldn't do anything very well," Stansbury said. "We couldn't execute." State definitely couldn't shoot in the first half, missing the first six attempts from the field. The Bulldogs were 3-of-15 midway of the half and just 7-of-24 at intermission. Harper had four of those made shots.
For their part the Stags came at bigger, stronger State with great energy, and while Fairfield wasn't much more efficient on offense (36% for the first half) they did make enough effort plays to stay in front all but 23 seconds of the period when the score was tied 5-5.
What saved State in the first half, besides Harper's scoring, was foul trouble for the Stags. Center Deng Gai drew his third foul at 12:10, and sparkplug point guard Tyquawn Goode his third at 3:26. The Bulldogs did not take advantage at the foul line, making just 5-of-17 chances in the half, but the absence of Fairfield's two key players at each end prevented State falling any farther behind than 18-10. MSU was able to get a Harper layup and free shots from Dietric Slater to pull within 24-20 at the break.
Gai would only play 27 minutes, fouling out with 14 points as the only Stag in double-digits. Goode had seven points and guard Terrence Todd nine more. Frazier was just 3-of-9 shooting for nine points, Ervin added nine, and Stelmach hit a pair of treys for eight total points. But senior Shane Power, the hottest shooter in preseason, was 0-of-3 and did not score.
Fouls took a toll on the Bulldogs, too, but State had more bodies to throw into the fray led by Harper. "We survived a game without Frazier making shots, Shane had a long night," Stansbury said. "But we had some guys come in and make some plays. Pete stepped up and made some baskets, Dietric gave us some energy. And we survived."
Survived to take on hometown team Birmingham-Southern, coached by former MSU assistant Duane Reboul. The Bulldogs also did something no State team has done in 21 years, winning a game in the BJCC for the first time since the 1983 SEC Tournament. State is now 2-8 all-time in the Birmingham facility, and if the Dogs can make it 3-8 on Friday they will earn a trip to Madison Square Garden next week.
And by then Stansbury hopes to have Roberts back in the lineup. The senior was on the MSU bench wearing both sweats and a bandage on his repaired nose. "For the first time I ever had surgery, it went well," he said of the Tuesday operation. "I feel pretty good, just ready to get back and help the team out." Roberts' return for next week (the semifinal and title rounds in New York are Nov. 18-19) is not entirely certain, but there is optimism in the locker room. "I go back Monday to make sure everything alright," Roberts said. "And as soon as they get the mask in I'll be ready to play."
He'll be rejoining a team that knows it can beat a good opponent without their star, too. "Lawrence is the biggest part of our team," said Stelmach, who started at power forward. "Now our confidence is even bigger."