"It wasn't pretty," said Coach Rick Stansbury, "but we hung on and made plays down the stretch to win the game."
In fact it was not a ‘classic' sort of win. And for much of the second half State was in definite danger of falling and upset victim to their ACC competition. With almost seven minutes left Virginia Tech had pulled off a second big rally of the evening and forced a 56-56 deadlock on a three-point basket.
That was when the Bulldogs put together a series of hard-nosed plays at each end of the court and pulled out the expected win. "That's what we like to do," said point guard Gary Ervin, "make effort plays. That's how we win." It was certainly how MSU won this one, with Ervin himself giving a momentum-turning ‘effort' first.
After a missed layup by forward Lawrence Roberts the ball kicked back across midcourt, with Ervin and Hokie guard Jamon Gordon chasing it down. The Bulldog got just in front and Gordon gave him a quick shove from behind. "I just cut in front of him and was wishing he would push me," Ervin admitted. "And he did, it was no flopping, he bumped me in the back."
The officials huddled, then ruled an intentional foul on Gordon. Ervin made just one of the free throws, but it put his team up a point with possession. Roberts made the most of it by rolling in a short shot in traffic at 6:03. Tech appeared to panic, forcing up a series of three-point attempts that missed. Each became a Bulldog fastbreak. Campbell scored on an offensive rebound, Ervin pulled up in the lane on a dead run to hit a short jumpshot, and Shane Power fed Ontario Harper for a layup and 65-56 lead with three minutes left.
"When it's crunch time we want to get every loose ball," said Roberts, "try to make every play." Mississippi State did, and Roberts and guard Winsome Frazier made four free throws in the last half-minute to ice the outcome.
"To our team's credit we made a run to go up seven," Stansbury said, "and that was a huge run to take back control of the game. It was the difference in rebounds and our ability to get to the free throw line, even though we didn't shoot them great."
The Bulldogs did own a whopping 49-29 advantage on the boards, and were 25-of-37 at the foul line compared to 5-of-11 for Virginia Tech. The officiating crew was made up of SEC regulars, led by Gerald Boudreaux.
Early on it did not appear Mississippi State would need to make any clutch plays to secure this inter-conference contest. The Bulldogs showed few signs of holiday-break rust, bolting to a 11-0 lead as their transition offense consistently outran the Hokies to the scoring end. The up-tempo game was possible because Tech was hapless initially, missing the first nine shots from the field (and three from the stripe). Not until 14:25, when Coleman Collins got a free throw to roll in, did Tech put a point on the board.
Yet the start was almost too easy, and when State had to start substituting they lost offensive focus. "I thought we started trying to make big plays instead of fundamental plays," Stansbury said. "They made some shots and got some confidence and the momentum swung."
Completely. With the Dogs missing eight of ten shots in one span the Hokies seized the opportunity to get back into contention. By 7:45 the had cut the deficit to 21-17 on the first Hokie trey, by Zabian Dowdell. Even when State got the starters back together oncourt they could not regain momentum. With six seconds left after an Ervin turnover Zabian Dowdell threw in a 22-footer, and the Bulldogs went to the locker room trailing 30-29.
"They can be very explosive, and they probably had some guys step up and play better than they expected," Stansbury said. The Bulldog coach had to be even more anxious when Roberts landed awkwardly in the first minute of the new half, and Tech went in front 35-31 on a longball by Carlos Dixon.
State settled down and got the ball inside to the big Dogs, and produced a ten-point surge. Campbell had rebounded well in the first half; in the second he scored, starting with a pair of free throws. Roberts notched four quick points for a 39-37 lead at 16:38, and Campbell came through with a layup, a blocked shot, a baseline jumper and two more free throws. "I just kept playing hard," he said, "it just came."
A Frazier three-ball gave MSU a 50-41 lead, but Tech had one more comeback in the playbook. It coincided with State's change from a zone defense that threw the Hokies off for five minutes to a standard man-scheme they could score more easily against. Tech was within 50-48 by 10:58, and with 6:41 left they tied the score on a trey by Dixon (though replay proved he had a foot on the arc-stripe.)
That was the cue for ‘effort' plays by Ervin, Roberts, Campbell, and the whole lineup. Tech got as close as 65-60 with 1:52 left, and Frazier missed a three-point try at 1:18. Fortunately Dowdell's baseline shot missed, and at the MSU end Harper forced up an over-the-shoulder bankshot that was good at 34.4 seconds.
"Down the stretch when it's tight we have to show the toughness we work on every day in practice," said Campbell. The 7-0 senior did his part, finishing with a dozen points and nine rebounds. "Marcus the second half gave us some good minutes," said Stansbury. "He rebounded the ball, he caught it around the hole and finished it, he stepped to the line and made free throws."
Roberts dominated the stat sheet again, with 25 points and 19 rebounds in 38 minutes. He didn't know how close he had come to his second ‘20/20' game of the year, and didn't care either. "Nah, I was just out there trying to get the win." Frazier had 11 more points for State. Dixon led Tech with 19 points and three treys, with Dowdell and Gordon adding ten points each.
"We knew what type of team they were and that they were capable of winning," Ervin said of Tech. Happily the Bulldogs didn't let Tech have their upset, as State stayed perfect in the current Sugar Bowl Classic format. This was also the seventh win in eight trips to New Orleans during Stansbury's tenure.
Which is good enough reason that Mississippi State hopes to schedule another holiday visit to the City on the River next year. It's almost become their other home court.