"You're always happy to win," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "But the way we won was the most important thing. I thought our kids responded well, we showed a little bit more toughness in some areas."
Particularly on defense. Stansbury is known for favoring classic man-to-man play. In fact most seasons he rarely gives his teams more than a brief talk about zones before conference competition. But with the Gaels starting a different and very tall front line, it took only four minutes for the MSU coach to change tactics.
"It took away the strength of their team, penetrating and driving the ball," Stansbury said. "The first few minutes we had three or four fouls already and were down. We went to the zone and got some stops, which allowed us to get out and run."
Run out to a 11-point lead by halftime, that is, at 34-23, and to continue stretching the margin to as much as 22 points in the second half. The Gaels did hit enough forced outside shots to slash the deficit in half, to 62-51, with 3:27 still to play. The Bulldogs made sure the rally stopped there, as guard Shane Power banked in a tough running shot and forward Lawrence Roberts canned clinching free throws.
Once State changed to the zone, they stuck with it all the way to the successful finish. The Bulldogs did get somewhat flat-footed with the big lead, helping St. Mary's make that late surge. But mostly the 2-3 set was active and effective, forcing the Gaels to fire from outside and keeping the ball out of the paint. Stansbury like that, a lot.
"We were able to rest Lawrence defensively, and let him play more minutes and help us offensively. He was better than last night."
Much better. After struggling to score nine points in Thursday's loss to Syracuse, Roberts was the dominant figure in this matchup. Though he was just 6-of-18 from the floor the senior collected 20 points with seven free throws and a three-point goal. He added seven rebounds.
Guard Winsome Frazier had a dozen points and Power ten more. The starters also got help as all five Dogs who played off the bench got at least one bucket. "It was a great team effort," Stansbury said.
The Gaels had only guard E.J. Rowland in double-figures, with 19 points. Forward Daniel Kickert and guard Johnathan Sanders had nine and eight points. St. Mary's was playing this game, as in their previous three CvsC contests, with three regular sidelined for the fall semester.
But the Bulldogs had a tough night's work against a team that upset regional host California to reach New York, and gave Memphis a good fight in the semifinals. "I think we'll look back in March and understand just how big a win this was," Stansbury said.
With a backcourt limited by suspensions St. Mary's went big, putting 7-1 Blake Sholberg in the lineup beside 6-10 Kickert, the team's scoring leader. It was a good idea neutralized by the best zone defending a Dog team has done for some time. "We did a great job against Kickert," Stansbury said, "he's an inside/outside player and the zone neutralized him."
St. Mary's shot 34% for the night, while State hit 44%. And while the bigger Gaels did edge ahead in the battle on the boards, they paid a price in ball-handling. St. Mary's had 20 turnovers, 11 of them credited as State steals.
The Gaels had a few early leads and were in front as late as the 11-minute mark, 12-11. Then MSU's zone and SMC turnovers began taking a toll, while the Dog offense cranked up as Power hit a fallaway jumper to put State in front to stay. A Roberts trey and Power rebound basket gave State the 11-point lead at the break.
Roberts scored a standard three-point play to open the second half, and when he scored off a break and was fouled his free shot made the margin 48-26 at 16:25, capping a 11-0 Bulldog run. For the next 13 minutes the Gaels could get no closer than 13 points.
Roberts put in 31 minutes in his second game of the week and season. Despite the mask protecting his broken nose he repeatedly took blows to the face that had him wincing in obvious pain. Still Roberts was better than in his first night back from surgery. "It's going to take some time to get him back in playing shape," Stansbury said. "He's not as quick and aggressive as he'll be two weeks from now."
The coach liked other things he saw in the victory, noting better play from point guard Gary Ervin, better shot selection by Power and Frazier, and much improved effort from center Marcus Campbell. Stansbury was more reserved with his bench this time out. "I probably didn't play as many people as many minutes. We've got to start settling in, who those guys are we don't know for sure. But Lawrence allows you do that a little quicker and better."
And despite taking the first loss of the year, Stansbury was glad State was able to exchange a berth in another preseason tournament for the Coaches Vs. Cancer and open the year against quality foes. "We could have gone 3-0 in Alaska," he said. "But we could go 2-2 in this tournament and still be a better team in January and February. I think all four teams (State played in the tourney) will be NCAA teams. To come out 3-1 without Lawrence much of a factor, that's going to have a lot to do with our team growing up."
There's no rest for the Bulldogs, who have an early return flight Saturday morning and perhaps 24 hours after that to prepare for their home opener. State hosts Nicholls State in a 2:00 game at Humphrey Coliseum, then meets Missouri-Kansas City Tuesday evening. "That's four games in six days, but being in The Hump for the first time will be very welcome to all of us."