They did indeed. A bench-team of Wesley Morgan, Charles Rhodes, Dietric Slater and Jamall Edmondson did more than fill relief minutes; they were on court for most of the decisive second-half minutes. And what a relief their play was, with heavily-favored State unable to put Georgia away. "We had to step it up off the bench," said Edmondson.
As a result the Bulldogs stepped up to 22-9 overall and into the second round, while Georgia ended the season 8-20. If not for backups stepping up, State was in some danger of heading into post-season play on a down-note. With over 15 minutes still to play MSU had only a 43-41 lead, all-American forward Lawrence Roberts was sitting with three fouls, and the UG Dogs were thinking opening-day upset.
Enter the second unit, for a first-rate relief effort. "The second half we had some other young men step up and give us some energy and some emotion that you have to have in tournament play," Stansbury said.
"The starters can't play all the minutes, and sometimes they're going to have off-nights," said Morgan. "The bench has to provide energy and enthusiasm, and some minutes." The all-important minutes, as it turned out.
After a reckless stretch by both teams Morgan, in for Roberts, made the first move to get things back on a Bulldog track, with an offensive rebound and free throws at 13:51. During the pause Edmondson, Rhodes, and Slater checked in, joining guard Shane Power. Slater promptly leeched onto UG guard Levi Stukes, who missed a guarded three-point attempt, and Morgan rejected a putback attempt.
Power, the only State starter on the floor by now, got a free throw, then after a loose-ball rebond he scored in traffic for a 48-41 lead. When Georgia missed a forced attempt Edmondson drove right to the goal for a layup. And the bench-Dogs were just getting cranked up on offense, as Slater fed Morgan for a slam…after Morgan had rebounded on the defensive end.
"I was just trying to play with some effort and bring some defensive intensity," said Morgan. As did the whole sub-unit, which had turned a two-point margin into a 52-42 lead in four crucial minutes.
"Those guys came with all-out energy and did a great job of increasing the lead," said Roberts, who sat out almost eight minutes before returning to the court. That was after Georgia made their last effort at keeping it a contest, cutting the deficit to 52-46 at 10:16. Power, on a bad right ankle, answered with an acrobatic baseline drive and layup before Roberts checked back in.
He immediately asserted himself with a block of Matt Womack and two free throws. Georgia would get only as close as eight points, 56-48, one more time before the bigger Bulldogs put things away. A spinning bank-layup by Slater ignited a 12-2 run from 7:55 to 4:38 that stretched State's lead to 68-50 and let some reserves to the backups finish out the afternoon.
"Everybody contributed tonight to the win," said Edmondson, who had six points and a pair of assists in his stint. Morgan had six points also, with eight rebounds, and Rhodes another six points while Slater added five more. But the impact of the bench-Dogs went way beyond numbers. Stansbury, operating on the assumption State would be playing again Friday, wanted to make liberal use of the roster. As things turned out, he had to do so anyway. "It's obvious in the first half we didn't have that energy and toughness. The second half we had some guys step it up and get that lead out." The coach meant leed, not led, but the fact was State's starting group was not on its best game against a Georgia group able to keep the contest contained to their grinding style.
"We weren't at our best," Stansbury said. "But give Georgia some credit."
In fact the Georgians were willing to take credit and more in this matchup. State had won the regular-season meeting, in Athens, by a 76-62 score and expected a physical Dog-fight. This time Georgia was a bit better, certainly in the first half. MSU did grab a 8-0 opening lead but still was practically pulling teeth to score points. Then Georgia, which missed the first five shots, found the range.
With guard Channing Toney tossing in three treys in three tries and guard Sundiata Gaines popping jumpers all around, the East cellar-dweller caught up and passed for a 22-19 lead at 10:29. Stansbury was already shuffling lineups in-and-out, finally getting most of the starting group together again. Roberts blocked a shot at one end and at the other pulled on an open trey to tie things up. There would be three more deadlocks in the half before Power hit a driving jumper and Harper converted a three-point play off a rebound.
With two minutes left to halftime State was ahead by seven points, yet twice Gaines got help from the iron on long shots and the intermission margin was just 39-35 MSU's way. "We were fortunate to be up at halftime," said Stansbury.
The second half wasn't about luck, just hard-nosed play by some unexpected heroes. "I tried to step it up today," said Morgan, and so did his partners off the pine. Morgan and Rhodes stopped Georgia's mechanical front line cold, while Edmondson and Slater, with either Power or Frazier, clamped down on Gaines and Toney. State zoned a good bit in the first half, then Stansbury chosed to play five-man after intermission.
"That got us going, our man defense got us a ten-point lead. Once we got out about 12, 15 points we settled back back in the zone. Dietric played a big part in that second half guarding in the two-guard spot." Georgia also fell apart on offense, throwing up hurried long jumpers or just throwing the ball away. The final margin would have been much worse had Stansbury not felt free to let things play out. Fortunately the officiating crew did not let things play out of control too much, hitting Georgia with a pair of technicals.
"We knew what to expect from the last time," Frazier said. "They fight, it's going to be pushing, grabbing, everything. That's just something you have to play through."
Gaines had all his 14 points in the first half, while center Dave Bliss finished with 14 more. Toney (11) did not score in the second period either, and Georgia was beaten on the boards 43-34. Power's ankle did not keep him from leading all scorers with 15 points, hitting 7-of-11 shots though no threeballs. Frazier had 13 points and Roberts ten more, with nine rebounds. He only played 26 minutes, partly from foul trouble and partly because his relief was so effective.
"They were doing such a great job," said Roberts, "that gave us the advantage." The decisive advantage, it turned out. And if observers were surprised at how backup Bulldogs performed in a tournament setting, the participants themselves were not.
"We realized we have to have our bench to advance in the postseason," said Morgan. In this case, the Bulldog bench definitely let Mississippi State advance in this tournament.