"You've always got to expect the unexpected," said senior forward Ontario Harper, who in his long college career has seen Vanderbilt teams thrive on free throws. Other veteran Bulldogs and fans also appreciated the unexpected irony as Mississippi State scored 11 of their last 13 points at the foul line to guarantee the win. Once the Commodores rallied from a 14-point deficit to force a 47-47 deadlock with over seven minutes left to play the MSU offensive gameplan became very simple, obvious, and fortunately effective.
"Basically that's some of the stuff we were trying to do," Harper said. "When you're in the penalty you've got to try to go get the foul and try to make two free throws."
Dogs who did get fouled in the decisive seven minutes didn't always make both attempts; there were seven misses in that stretch run, keeping Commodore hopes alive for one more late rally. But State canned enough free chances on the offensive end, and forced Vanderbilt to miss everything at the other end for four minutes, to come out ahead and gain valuable ground in the SEC race.
"It was a huge game for us," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "When your back is against the wall like it was late in that game you have to respond, and that is what I'm proud of—the way our kids responded."
There was plenty opportunity for the home team to not respond. The Bulldogs were coming off a stunning upset loss at Auburn a week earlier that had to shake club confidence. Several players, including starters guard Shane Power and center Marcus Campbell, had been weakened for a couple of days by a virus. And Vanderbilt's defensive gameplan made forward Lawrence Roberts a non-factor for the whole first half, holding the All-American to zero points and four rebounds at intermission.
Then came the real challenge, as the Commodores rallied from a 47-33 deficit to knot the score. In only three minutes Vanderbilt sank four three-point goals, three by guard Alex Gordon and a tying trey by forward DeMarre Carroll. This was where the Bulldogs had to respond.
They did. "We said we weren't being patient on offense and had to tighten up our defense," Harper said. The defense was helped by some questionable VU shots, as Dan Cage and Alan Metcalfe forced threeballs for the lead that missed. Metcalfe also had a driving layup rim away. And each rebound, like 37 on other misses, ended up in Bulldog hands.
Given the reprieve, State went back to the most reliable offensive tactic of the night: draw fouls. Power had already broken the 47-47 tie with a pair of charity tosses at 6:47. Harper and Roberts combined for three more and Vanderbilt turned the ball over twice. A face-up jumper by Roberts and Power free shot inflated the cushion to 55-47, as the ‘Dores did not score again until free throws by Corey Smith at 2:42.
The result wasn't assured just yet, as a running jumper by Shan Foster made it 55-51 and Power missed consecutive free pitches at 1:56. But Roberts rebounded a ‘Dore miss, drew the foul and made his shots. A Foster bomb with 100 seconds left had Vanderbilt within three points before Roberts chipped in one free shot and Gordon missed the front end of his 1-and-1 for Roberts' 14th and final board. Guard Gary Ervin iced the outcome with, naturally, free throws at 32 seconds.
While Vanderbilt actually out-shot State 44% to 41%, the ‘Dores could not score the baskets that mattered most. "We knew they were going to make some shots," Roberts said. "We had to contest as many as we could and limit them to one shot." The final tally of 40 rebounds to 21 reflected how well State met that goal.
Roberts recovered from a grueling first half to finish with 15 points (eight on free shots) and those 14 boards. But his 13th ‘double-double' of the year (and NCAA-leading 51st of his career) came harder than most as he was just 3-of-10 shooting in 38 tough minutes.
"The biggest thing was just to continue to play hard," said Roberts, who noted he could not remember the last time he was held scoreless for a whole half. "There were a lot of fouls called and we just had to stay aggressive."
Stansbury appreciated just how aggressive Roberts was under the circumstances, specifically the double-and triple-teams he faced. "Even though they did a great job fronting him, he never quit playing," the coach said. "He went and got 15 points. He went and got them. He was the total difference in the second half."
If Roberts was the second-half difference, Power was the main man in the first period. Stansbury actually wasn't sure the senior would play Saturday—"it was going to be a gametime decision after warm-ups," he said. Power countered that. "There was nothing going to keep me out of The Hump," he said. "I said let me give it my best shot from the tip and see how it goes."
It went well as Power sank treys from opposite corners and the Bulldogs bolted to a 11-0 lead in just three minutes. The Commodores looked sick in missing their first four shots and turning the ball over three times against MSU's man-defense. It took a backdoor layup by Mario Moore to get VU on the scoreboard, but when Power stuck a long three from the wing State still led 16-5.
The big early lead allowed Stansbury to make some quick substitutions, but that may also have broken the rhythm. So did Vanderbilt's change to a man-defense, and the inability of Roberts to get free inside. The closest he came to a first-half point was at the stripe, and he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 at 3:17. Meanwhile the Commodores heated up from outside and pulled within 24-19 at 2:44.
But the Bulldogs responded with a foretelling of how the last half would play out, by forcing the action inside, drawing fouls, and making all six chances at the stripe for a 30-21 intermission margin. Power scored 11 points in the first half and finished with a game-best 16 on 5-of-7 shooting. "I'm glad he made the decision to play," Stansbury said.
"The crowd got my adrenalin going," said Power. Harper added ten points for State, which got all but two points from the starting five. Vanderbilt was just the opposite; no Commodore starter had more than eight points and the bench provided 38 points and eight of the nine threeballs. Half of VU's scoring came at the arc, in fact. But the ‘Dores missed 17 long shots as well and a focus on perimeter offense allowed State to utterly dominate the backboards.
"We expected a tight game because we knew their ability to shoot the three," Harper said. "We just had to play hard-nosed defense to win the game."
And, take care of business at the foul line. "We knew free throws were going to be a turning point in this game," Roberts said. "We just had to make them."
NOTE: Though he did not make a free shot or play at all, Winsome Frazier did dress out for the first time since his January 8 injury at Mississippi. The senior guard, still recovering from foot surgery to repair a broken bone, warmed up with the full squad in shooting drills. His return could be as early as February 19 at Kentucky.