The Dogs had to play the eight decisive minutes of the second half with their All-America forward confined to the bench. Roberts picked up his fourth foul at 12:14 chasing a loose ball, right after tying the game 45-45 with a free throw, and when he left the court the Gamecocks looked to be poised to pull off a SEC upset.
"They were over their laughing, happy about it," senior forward Ontario Harper said. "We just looked at it as hey, it's time for us to step up. And we did that."
The rest of the Dogs did indeed. With Roberts cheering them on, his teammates outscored South Carolina 15-5 over the ensuing five minutes and took control of what had until then been a completely competitive contest. And when State scoring and rebounding leader did return, at 4:11, it was with the score standing 65-54. In fact, Roberts did not score another point or grab another board the rest of the way, nor need to.
Because, everyone else had turned challenge into opportunity. "You can't dwell on the situation because the game is still being played," said center Marcus Campbell. "You have to find a way to get it done, by any means necessary."
In the process State scored what, after a Tuesday night blowout at Alabama, was essentially a must-win situation. "It's obvious how proud we are to get this victory," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "We knew our backs were to the wall a little bit coming in, and I'm proud of how our young men responded. And we responded with our best player on the bench in the second half."
The response came across-the-statistical-board, as five Bulldogs finished scoring in double-figures. Campbell, guard Shane Power, and guard Jamall Edmondson each had eleven points and guard Dietric Slater ten more. Campbell added ten rebounds for his second ‘double-double' of the year and played a season-best 27 minutes.
Roberts also got a double-double, with 17 points and 12 boards. But his production was what kept State even with the Gamecocks for the first two-thirds of the night. The rest of the squad provided the margins of victory, on both offense and defense.
"This may have been as balanced a team victory as we've had in a while," Stansbury said. "We had five guys in double figures and three guys on the backboards." Harper added eight boards and seven points, in his first start since the 2002-03 season.
The decisive stretch began with USC backup center John Chappell shooting for the lead. His attempt banked long, and at the other end Campbell drew a foul. He made the first chance, missed the second, and Harper rebounded. Power got the kick-out pass and stuck an open three-pointer that both invigorated the Dogs and took some edge off the Gamecock's new confidence.
USC still got back within a point, 49-48, on a three-pointer, but Campbell came through by tipping in his own miss and laying in another goal. Edmondson got open out top for a trey and Slater popped a short jumper in the lane for a 58-50 lead that had USC calling for time. But when play resumed Slater beat the Gamecock press with a driving layup and ten-point cushion. There was still seven minutes on the clock but the Bulldogs had survived the crisis.
"I thought when we lost Lawrence we had some young men really step up," Stansbury said. "Jamall did what we tell him all the time, catch it ready to shoot. I thought Dietric gave us great energy, he created and finished some plays. And Marcus elevated his play."
Edmondson, who the staff had spent days of practice encouraging to shoot, stuck another threeball and scored a layup for a 65-54 lead, before State began trying to milk the clock. They did, but without scoring, and South Carolina took five points off the deficit with three minutes left and possession after a charge on point guard Gary Ervin. But Renaldo Balkman threw up a long trey-try that missed and Edmondson drew a foul for free throws to stop the bleeding.
The junior guard then tipped a ball away from Tre Kelly and Slater scored on a loose-ball layup that, at 57 seconds and the margin back to ten points, effectively sealed a successful outcome for the home team.
"We knew we had to be aggressive and get out in transition," Edmondson said. "There was a combination of things that helped us get out to a lead, our defense was better and that really helped us." In fact, while USC did shoot 50% for the evening and 58% in the second half, when the game was on the line the Gamecocks were unable to get good shots or make the tough ones.
Edmondson, not previously noted for defense, came away with five of State's eight steals, and the Bulldogs owned the boards by a 40-25 margin. That was how MSU won despite being out-shot on their own floor.
"That's a prime example of what toughness is all about," said Stansbury. "You lose your best player, you have to find a way to dig in."
The Bulldogs were in a dig-in situation already, and Harper admitted that the Alabama loss was still vivid in many minds. That defeat keyed the lineup change putting Power at off-guard and Harper into the lineup at small forward, as Stansbury went with his most experienced and "toughest" grouping.
There were some positive early signs, too, such as outside shooting. After missing all 11 attempts in Tuscaloosa the Dogs hit a pair of three-pointers, both by Power, and took a 10-4 lead. It didn't last long as the Gamecocks attacked with Kelly cutting down the lane or Carlos Powell on the baseline. A 7-0 run put USC in front by 13:01.
And play on both sides was sloppy, even reckless, most of the half with unforced turnovers and unnecessary shots. A frustrated Roberts had to dunk to get his first basket, at 9:54, but halfcourt offense was lacking on either end. South Carolina eased in front 23-18 with five minutes left to halftime, before Roberts shook free to score 10 of his team's final 13 points and forge a 31-31 intermission deadlock.
Roberts and Campbell combined four eight points to open the new half, three of the four buckets on rebounds, and force a USC timeout at 42-37. Whatever was said in the huddle worked as the Gamecocks regained the lead, 45-44 on an acrobatic layup by Kelly. Roberts re-tied the count before drawing that fourth foul.
As it turned out, the Bulldogs were able to get the job done anyway, which in the long run might do as much for team confidence as if they had coasted to a routine victory. "This team showed me something," Stansbury said, "and it's something to build on."
The win was State's tenth-straight victory at The Hump dating back to last season, and the fourth-consecutive success in the series with South Carolina. The Dogs also can savor this one a bit longer than usual, as they do not play again until next Saturday afternoon at LSU. Certainly beating South Carolina eased the lingering sting of the midweek setback.
"It was very important for us to win this game," Slater said.