But State did play just well enough, often enough to take care of the visiting Jaguars 66-52 before boarding the bus. The 15th-ranked Bulldogs reeled off a dozen unanswered points to turn a 37-33 contest into a routine homecourt victory and take a 6-1 record into their Sunday matchup with Arizona in the John Wooden Classic.
South Alabama left 2-3, having lost for the fourth-straight year to State. MSU now holds a 9-0 series record against the Jaguars, though this year's margin of victory was the largest since 1970.
And for too much of this evening winning was hardly certain. Stansbury was concerned how the Dogs would come back after a nine-day layoff, and if they might be thinking too much of the weekend trip. They were. "They're a good ball club and we may have looked past them," forward Lawrence Roberts said. "We just weren't as focused. We got that the second half."
The Jaguars certainly got State's attention, staying within the four-point halftime margin two minutes into the last period, as free throws by former MSU guard Stephen Cowherd made the score 37-33 at 18:08. It was a driving jumper by point guard Gary Ervin at 17:57 to start what became the decisive surge.
Because after missed USA foul shots Roberts rattled in a short jumper, followed by a Marcus Campbell layup. The 43-33 score caused a Jaguar timeout at 16:11, but when play resumed South Alabama took, and missed, three consecutive long shots. MSU's Winsome Frazier did not miss his trey-try at 15:07, and Roberts converted an old-style three-point play. As quickly as that the Bulldogs were ahead 49-33.
South Alabama did draw back within single-digits, 59-50 with four minutes left, and no closer as two scoreless minutes later Roberts dunked off a Frazier bounce-feed. Forward Shane Power added four free throws to pad the final margin.
Roberts, who was 2-of-9 shooting in the first half, finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds in just 28 minutes. It was his third-straight ‘double-double' and 41st for his career, which leads active NCAA players. Power had 16 points and Frazier a dozen. USA got 15 points from guard Mario Jointer and ten by forward Richard Law.
It was hardly a crisp performance for the home team, which last played on November 23 and came into this game at least somewhat distracted. "If we were looking past USA, we shouldn't have," Frazier said. But to some extent this was almost sure to happen, Stansbury admitted. "I thought we played the way I was concerned we'd play."
By the same token the Jaguars came to play the ranked SEC team on their court. South Alabama forced the pace early and took a 12-6 lead, with State missing six of their first eight shots. Roberts helped get his team up-to-speed despite double-teams, scoring a pair of buckets which also opened the perimeter. Power sank a long trey from the wing and get State within a point, 13-14.
But it was better defense and harder board-work that really changed the pace. Substitute center Wesley Morgan forced USA's Jacque Pate into consecutive travel calls, and in-between the junior scored the go-ahead basket at 11:49 on an offensive rebound. Another second-chance let forward Ontario Harper score a layup, then he finished a fastbreak for a 19-14 lead.
"It was just buckling down, trying to do a better job on the defensive end," Roberts said.
The first-half margin reached eight points after a USA foul and technical on Coach John Pelphrey at 9:23 produced three free throws. The Jaguars weren't done yet, despite going four minutes without scoring. A Carlos Smith trey ended their drought at 7:46. And with the Bulldogs again rushing, and missing, jumpshots, USA was able to regain the lead 27-26 on a turnaround by Pate. The advantage changed sides twice more, until Ervin came up with a turnover and fed Harper for a layup at 58 seconds. State got the ball back, ran the clock down to set up a Power trey that swished for the 33-29 intermission lead.
"They are so good on the break," USA Coach Pelphrey said. "I felt half their offense comes out of transition. If you don't do the right things getting back on defense, they make you pay."
The margin stayed that way for a couple of minutes, before Stansbury said enough. "Coach told us to get back out there and give it the same thing we had at the end of the first half," Slater said. "We were like, no problem!"
The coach still had a problem with how his team performed, regardless of circumstances, and didn't care for letting the visitors get close towards the end. "When you're up you have to finish burying people," Stansbury said. He also made less use of his bench this night, with just nine Dogs seeing action. Morgan's defense was evident in the first half, and in each period guard Dietric Slater put a spark in the lineup despite not scoring. But several players stayed in their seats all night, notably freshmen Walter Sharpe and Charles Rhodes.
Stansbury meant to play the latter, "but the game never got where we like it to play him." And while he never called Sharpe by name, the coach talked about not using one player because of recent practice habits. "Sometimes what will get attention more than anything else is sitting down."
The Bulldogs will be sitting on an airplane Friday morning en route to Anaheim, where they will meet #21-ranked Arizona in a 1:30 PT (3:30 CT) game at Arrowhead Pond. UCLA and Boston College play in the second half of the one-day twinbill.
"Going out there to play in the Classic will be a great honor," said Roberts, a Wooden All-American last season and the biggest single reason State was invited to participate in this year's event. It will be another stiff test for the Bulldogs.
"Everybody knows Arizona is one of the most talented teams in the country," Stansbury said. "They've got all-Americans at all positions, and the first thee seats on the bench they have three more. It's a very prestigious tournament, very few teams get that opportunity. Just have the opportunity to participate in a national stage, against one of the best teams in the country, it only helps you." State returns to campus Monday morning for a full week of final fall exams, and plays again next Saturday with Arkansas-Little Rock visiting The Hump for a 7:00 game.