The postgame stat sheet tilted as heavily to the home team as the final score did, with State holding lopsided margins in shooting, rebounding, defense…just as could have been anticipated against a AU lineup with no taller Tiger than 6'6". Yet for much of the evening Coach Rick Stansbury opted to keep his ‘small' lineup on court. And the Bulldogs still were able to dominate play physically at each end.
"Our team functions better when we're smaller," Stansbury said.
Indeed, after some initial sputters—when State tried playing with a seven-footer in the pivot—the smaller Dogs functioned quite efficiently. Once Stansbury subbed in 6-4 Ontario Harper at ‘big' forward and moved Lawrence Roberts to center, State was able to run end-to-end while maintaining a margin of muscle on the backboards. The end result was a worn-down Tiger team, as planned.
"We wanted to run and get into their legs and make them use their bench," said Roberts, who stood tallest on the stat-sheet with 19 points and 14 rebounds. It was his seventh ‘double-double' of the season and 45th career. Three other Dogs scored in double-figures with the points piling up as Auburn wore down and ultimately out.
The blowout was somewhat surprising, as Auburn came in averaging almost 80 points per game from a lineup designed for up-tempo offense and quick outside shots. The Bulldogs knew of the dangers this attack meant, especially if Tiger long shots were falling. "For them to play five guards was difficult at some times," point guard Gary Ervin said. "it was an advantage in the post but for our big guys to be running around out there it could be difficult."
But Dogs of all sizes were able to keep up on defense and go after missed shots…and the Tigers missed a bunch, shooting just 27% for the night and making 10-of-38 three-point attempts. "We did a good job of getting in their faces and limiting them to one shot and getting the rebound," Roberts said. Lots of rebounds, with State owning a 53-33 edge on the backboards. That meant the Bulldogs grabbed as many missed shots as Auburn scored points.
Just as impressive was the 50 points scored in the paint. True, many of the buckets came on breakaways or driving layups, but this reflected the fact that even State's guards were able to attack the lane and outmuscle the opponents.
"We wanted to be aggressive on the inside, and in turn open up other shots and transition," said Roberts.
The final margin obscured the fact that midway into the first half this was a competitive game, and with eight minutes left in the opening period Auburn actually had a lead. Both sides came out running but not gunning too well, with 14 of the first 16 combined shots missing.
"I didn't know if either team would score tonight," Stansbury said. "It seemed the first five minutes neither could score and we were really getting up and down the floor." But with a 2-2 tie the MSU coach used the first radio timeout to insert Harper for starting center Wesley Morgan. The smaller lineup produced a 6-0 run as Harper fed Roberts on the baseline for a basket, Ervin slashed for a layup, and Winsome Frazier took the ball to the rim. The margin reached ten points, 16-6, as Ervin was left open for a jumpshot.
Auburn missed their first nine trey-tries of the night, not connecting on one until Daniel Hayles did the trick at 11:56. Then Toney Douglas hit another. A layup and tip-in got the Tigers within a basket, and Douglas sank another three-ball at 8:20 for a 21-20 lead. It was the only time State trailed.
And it did not last long as sub-guard Dietric Slater made a pair of free shots to spark a 10-0 run. Roberts went right to the rack for a layup and foul. He missed the free shot but Shane Power slipped in for a rebound and basket. Slater and Power each scored baskets as State ran out the half on a 17-4 surge, with Ervin beating the buzzer on a long three-pointer for a 37-25 halftime score.
Auburn hopes of a comeback faded in three minutes, or the time it took the Bulldogs to string together a 9-2 stretch. By 17:41 the margin was 46-27 and State was running away. A backdoor layup by Harper pushed the lead out to 25 points, and between 8:29 and 6:38 backup guard Jamall Edmondson buried three long, long shots for a 77-45 advantage.
Even when the Tigers finally warmed up from outside they could not keep pace as State scored inside, outside, and in-between. "The second half we spread it out and everybody started making shots," said Harper, "plus our defensive intensity picked up a little. We executed more than they did."
"It wasn't just Lawrence inside the paint, it was everybody," said Ervin, who finished with 11 points. Edmondson had a dozen, all on longballs, and Frazier also scored 12 with two treys. Though Auburn put up over twice as many three-balls as State, the Dogs were a far more efficient 8-of-18 at the arc after hitting just one trey in the first half. That was the most surprising mis-match of the night.
"They're a difficult team to guard," Stansbury said, "you saw their five-man shoots threes and plays off the dribble. But we kept running, pushing, we got into their legs. The second half we settled down, kept them off the boards, we got good shots in transition and halfcourt offense and that's how the game got away from Auburn." The win was State's eighth-straight over the Tigers, who were led by Douglas with 14 points and Ian Young with 10.
Stansbury's switch to the smaller lineup was partly due to how the game was played. But he also had a ‘shorter' bench than usual, as regular center Marcus Campbell was suspended for the game. "It was a coach's decision not to play him," Stansbury said. "It was (for) conduct unacceptable to our team, nothing serious." The coach said Campbell will play this weekend at Mississippi. In the absence, junior Morgan got his first college start and scored the first basket of the night on a tip-in.
Stansbury was less specific about the status of backup power forward Charles Rhodes, who did not make the trip to the Sugar Bowl Classic. The freshman did not dress out this game either, and sat on the bench in street garb for the SEC opener. "It was a coach's decision, again," said Stansbury. Asked whether the rookie will play this weekend or anytime soon, he demurred. "I don't really don't know yet."
The Bulldogs meet the arch-rival Rebels this Saturday afternoon in Oxford, with a 1:00 game time. State owns a six-game winning streak in the series, and after the game Stansbury was told the Rebels will likely be without starting center Tommie Eddie, reportedly ineligible for the spring semester.
Told this, the Bulldogs said they could now likely expect to see another small, quick, outside-oriented team. "We're going to have to realize that Ole Miss is going to drive a lot and knock down three-pointers," Ervin said. "We just have to contain them on the defensive end, that will be the key for us."