The Bulldogs would rather be playing in Friday's second game, as well as still unbeaten. Syracuse took care of that. "We got hit in the mouth tonight," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "We got knocked down. And that's good."
Well, only in the sense that State gets a second sort of early-season test. The first was how the Bulldogs would perform in the national spotlight, against a top-ten foe playing essentially a home-away-from-home game. They came up short in this exam.
Test #2 is how quickly and how completely Stansbury's team responds to their setback, and plays against St. Mary's. SMC is the lone unranked entry in the Classic's final four, but State's coach knows how much that means. "They're a very good basketball team," he said. "It's not going to be an easy game.
"That will show the leadership and toughness this team has to develop. We'll be challenged getting up off that mat."
Losing to Syracuse is hardly a knockout. The Orange showed in the second half why they are ranked in the top-five, breaking a 25-25 deadlock convincingly and not letting up after taking a double-digit lead five minutes into the final period. "Basically the game lay in the first five minutes," Stansbury said. "They came out and made some shots, and all of a sudden their emotion changed and from then on they played with the most poise."
Syracuse also had the best player on the floor this night. Senior Hakim Warwick scored 17 of his game-leading 21 points in the second half, including five baskets in the ‘third quarter' when the game was won…or lost. Held to a pair of goals in the first half, the 6-8 forward took charge by hitting a variety of short jumpers, layups, and one highlight-tape dunk. He had ten rebounds as well.
"He put that team on his back at halftime, and they got control of the game," said Stansbury. Warwick also claimed the unofficial battle of national Player of the Year candidates, though it was not an entirely fair fight. His MSU counterpart, Lawrence Roberts, had a tough time in his first game of the season.
The senior forward, wearing a mask to protect (sometimes) his broken nose, missed his first six shots and finished with nine points on two baskets and five free throws. Roberts did get a game-high dozen rebounds and played aggressively at both ends, not shying away from contact in the lane and even diving for loose balls. He just could not make the shots that won SEC Player of the Year and all-America honors last season.
"Lawrence wasn't himself," Stansbury said. "But he still gave us 12 rebounds and nine points." With Roberts struggling offensively inside Syracuse's trademark 2-3 zone defense, the Bulldogs were more perimeter-oriented than the coach wanted. They did hit seven treys, in 22 tries, with three longballs by Shane Power as he scored a team-best 18 points.
But nobody else got into double-digits and the team shooting was only 31% overall. "We didn't get enough baskets on the inside of that zone," Stansbury said. "Lawrence gave us everything he had, he missed a lot of easy shots that he will make later on."
Still the Bulldogs seemed energized just to have Roberts back in the starting lineup. And while the Orange came in with the reputation, State showed it could play pretty stout ‘D' as well by holding Syracuse to 29% shooting in the first half. Tourney organizers and ESPN2 marketers could not have liked the first twenty minutes, which featured tough, physical, and even frantic play. There were almost as many fouls as baskets in the period.
State never trailed in the first half, breaking a 3-3 tie on Marcus Campbell's layup and going in front 14-8 at 12:44. With 5:15 left Power hit a running jumper for the longest MSU lead of the night, eight points, at 21-13. A timeout stopped the surge and motivated Warwick, who finally scored with consecutive baskets in the lane. A spinning jumper by Jost Pace just before the buzzer evened the scoreboard at halftime, but Warwick and Gerry McNamara had just five points between them. "The first half we did a good job containing them," Stansbury said.
The second half was another matter as Syracuse hit three fast baskets—one a trey—in 100 seconds before Stansbury could call time. Warwick came out of another TO with two scores, capping the 11-0 run. And after Roberts finally got a field goal, at 16:33, Warwick answered for a 38-27 lead. Consecutive tip-ins pushed the margin to 13 points.
The Bulldogs tried to rally on two treys each by Winsome Frazier and Power, cutting the deficit to eight points twice. Warwick's lob-slam at ten minutes restored the momentum at 53-43 and the Orange would go in front by as much as 19 points before some late goals made the final margin look better. Pace and McNamara had 21 points between them, while Gary Ervin had eight points and Frazier—hampered by early fouls—seven.
Stansbury made free use of his bench, with 14 Dogs seeing action—12 in the first half. "We were shuffling them in-and-out." That included juco guard Jamall Edmondson, cleared to play only two days ago. The coach seems intent on substituting often here in the early season as he evaluates the whole roster. "We're trying to fit in two new (starting) pieces in Gary and Campbell, and a whole new bench," he said.
"We've got to find out which guys can function together out there. Getting Lawrence back full-speed will make a difference. But this is a learning situation for us, there's a lot of areas we've got to get better in." Specifically, attacking zone defenses, shot selection in all situations, and free-throw shooting. The Bulldogs have rebounded and defended well in the first three contests, but there's certainly room for improvement. And, the need to do so if the Dogs are to take care of a St. Mary's team rated second only to Gonzaga in their West Coast Conference.
So Stansbury was not in any mood to see the first loss of the year as a serious setback, or care what it might do to the ranking. "This game will expose some things and help us become better down the road," he said. "We'll learn from it and that's how you have to take a loss this early in the year against this kind of team. We knew it was going to be difficult and we have to learn from it and get ready."
The loss gives State a 1-1 record in Madison Square Garden, after the 2002-03 Bulldogs beat Xavier in the world-famed venue.