Unencumbered by a protective mask for the first time this fall, Roberts was unleashed for his best offensive evening. "I'm 100% happier being able to play without it," Roberts said. His team was just as thrilled to see the senior All-American playing like, well, an all-American.
"He was a much more energetic guy out there tonight," said Coach Rick Stansbury. "Getting that mask off helped him a bunch." And getting a big night from Roberts helped the Bulldogs turn a non-conference matchup with upset potential into a 30-point romp.
"After the game Coach told us this was the best game we'd played together," guard Dietric Slater said. "We had the same chemistry on the floor and did all the right things when we were supposed to do them. It's something we can take over to the other games."
Certainly the Bulldogs would do well to maintain the kind of efficiency they showed at each end of the home court this time out. They put the defensive clamps on a Trojan team that had shot 49.7% through seven games, limiting the visitors to 36% overall and 7-of-21 at the arc. And when UALR missed, most caroms ended up in State hands with a whopping 55-23 disparity in rebounding.
"We took a very good Little Rock team and from the get-go set the tempo how the game was going to be played defensively," Stansbury said. "We really rebounded the ball." Six Dogs had four or more boards, led by Roberts' nine.
But it was early offensive prowess that electrified the home crowd as Roberts, un-masked, looked far more comfortable and confident than the frustrated forward held to a MSU-career-low seven points the prior weekend. "The past few games everybody was telling me I wasn't as aggressive," Roberts said. "I knew it was just because of the mask, and sitting out some games. I was just trying to get back into it."
Did he ever. Roberts was on his game from the start, scoring the first ten Bulldog points of the night and accounting for half of MSU's halftime total with 21. He also showed no concern for the surgically-repaired nose, attacking the goal in traffic. "We did a much better job getting Lawrence the ball inside, particularly in the first half," Stansbury said.
It was good strategy as the rest of the team was 0-of-6 to open the evening, until forward Ontario Harper put in a rebound for a 12-12 tie. Substitute center Wesley Morgan's consecutive baskets allowed Roberts to grab a breather midway of the period, and Slater put some spark in the backcourt defense.
UALR still had a lead as late as 9:02, 19-18, but State's aggressiveness and the fast pace of play effectively disrupted a Trojan offense designed around set plays. "We pressured the ball and Gary Ervin stuck to the point guard," Stansbury said. "We made them do some things they weren't comfortable in. And we limited them to one shot."
The Bulldogs gradually gained control, using a 9-0 run to build a 27-19 lead by 7:03. The Trojans managed one small spurt and cut the deficit to 27-24, but over the final five minutes of the half State held the visitors scoreless. At the other end, Roberts got back to work by popping an unguarded trey at 4:51.
Morgan knocked a pass free and Ervin cashed in the layup for a double-digit margin. Three minutes before halftime Roberts took a slap in the face, the first time his nose seemed an issue, but he still sank both free throws, then two more. His jumper at thirty seconds capped a 15-0 run to give State the 42-24 lead at intermission.
"We wanted to stay aggressive," Roberts said, "we knew if we let them stay in the game they were capable of making a run. We wanted to keep hitting them when they were down."
Any hope UALR had of getting back up and in the game ended as State tipped off the second half with six quick points. The Trojans never got closer than 19 again at 48-29, even as Stansbury mixed and matched all sorts of combinations for the remainder of the half. "Coach told us don't let down, keep it going," said Slater.
He briefly put the starting five back on court midway of the period, but it was the bench-Dogs who largely accounted for the final margin of blowout victory. Every player dressed out got into the game save two freshmen, forward Jerrell Houston and center Walter Sharpe. The former is redshirting and the latter has been in the coach's doghouse both for practice habits and missing the trip to Arizona.
Roberts scored only six second-half points, the last at 4:14. He was lifted short of career scoring highs both overall (30 against Texas with Baylor) and as a Bulldog (29 against Arkansas), and missed a ‘double-double' by one rebound. He hit half his 16 shots and was 10-of-15 at the foul line, and got his 27 points in just 29 minutes.
With such a scoring leader the Dogs didn't need anyone else in double-figures. Starting center Marcus Campbell had eight points and eight rebounds, while Ervin added eight points. Slater came off the bench for nine points and Morgan six more. "Everybody got into it," Morgan said. "Everybody came out and contributed to this win."
A win Stansbury liked, a lot. "Sometimes you get wins that aren't very pleasing. Tonight I was pleased by the way we got it," the coach said. "I thought we had great play off the bench with Dietric, Wesley brought us some things. And we have to continue to have guys coming off the bench and be productive."
While Arkansas-Little Rock is no Arizona, the whole Dog team was much more productive. And Stansbury even saw signs that State carried over the second-half rally they gave against the Wildcats last Sunday. "I was concerned tonight because we had an abbreviated week of practice because of finals. Little Rock came in playing with high emotion and confidence. That's why I'm really proud of how our team came out and defended and rebounded."
"The last few days we've tried to buckle down and play hard on defense," Roberts said. It showed in this win, and will have to be showed again soon enough as the Bulldogs hit the road for a pair of games next week. Monday evening they play at the University of New Orleans (7:00, no television), and next Saturday the Bulldogs visit Xavier for a 8:00 ET (7:00 CT, ) game in Cincinnati. This completes a three-year, three-game contract between the schools.
"It's a quick turnaround, and it's never easy when you go on the road," Stansbury said.