Mississippi State exploded for 14 unanswered second-half points to turn a tense contest into a runaway 93-70 victory over Stanford in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Scoring the most points ever for a Bulldog team in NCAA play, ninth-seed State (23-10) earned the right to meet Duke in a second-round matchup Sunday.
The Dogs did it by biding their time and leaping at opportunity as if it were a loose ball rolling across the Charlotte Coliseum court. "We kept our composure," said forward Lawrence Roberts. "They got up a little bit, but during a game you know you're going to have runs. Everybody did a good job of staying patient."
The statement didn't do justice to the situations. Stanford got up by more than a little, leading 39-37 at 5:28 of the first period. And the Bulldogs did more than go on a routine run; they blew by stunned Stanford as if jet-propelled and rocket-fueled. From that dozen-point deficit to the 8:30 mark in the second period State outscored the Cardinal 34-14 and turned potential early-round exit into a record-setting win.
"I'm especially proud of our team, not just because we won but the way we won," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "Our kids played with great emotion and great energy." And, as the Dogs noted, impressive poise.
"I'm proud of my teammates," guard Winsome Frazier said, "we came in ready to play. The intensity was there and everything fell into place for us."
Of course at a couple of junctures it seemed things were more likely to fall apart for State. The eight-seed Cardinal put together a strong first half, powering the ball inside with their bigger front line and popping some unexpected outside shots. After the Bulldogs surged back in front before halftime, Stanford tied things up 44-44 to open the second half and drew third fouls on both Roberts and Frazier.
The response? "We just won the battle," said Frazier, who fired in two quick three-pointers—including a forced fallaway number that swished—to put State in front for good.
The battle wasn't won quite that quickly, as five points by forward Fred Washington had Stanford within 52-51. But the Bulldogs were building up a head of steam, starting with an aggressive three-point play by Roberts at 15:48. He was replaced on the free throw by Marcus Campbell, who promptly dunked.
Stanford got a Nick Robinson jumper that did nothing to half the momentum. In fact the real run was just getting going as guard Shane Power scored on a roll-in layup. He was fouled, missed the extra point, and Campbell boarded it for two more. The Bulldog were off and running, just as Stansbury figured they would do at some point this game.
"Once we got stops it allowed us to get out and play in transition and get baskets," he said. The Cardinal helped by rushing their own offense and missing shots that had dropped in the first half. Some were also swatted, as when Campbell's block of Hernandez turned into a break finished by Slater for a 63-53 lead and Stanford timeout at 11:19. But when play resumed Roberts scored on a rebound, the Cardinal turned it over, and Coach Trent Johnson earned a technical for two Power free throws. And on it went with Slater scoring off a Roberts steal and Ervin dashing end-to-end, capping the 14-0 surge and pushing State's lead to a decisive 71-53. There was still 8:25 left but the outcome was settled as Stanford had gone five decisive minutes without a point of any sort.
"As far as a team standpoint we did a good job," said Roberts. "We came out the second half and picked it up on the defense." Obviously the offense sped up considerably, too, as State hit 57% in the last period and made 14 free throws. The Bulldogs were able to expand the margin reached 20 points by 6:49 on a Campbell layup, and peaked at 25 in the final minute after backup Michael Boler drained a treyball.
All the more impressive was that State executed so well against Stanford's wide-zone set. "Zones are meant to slow you down," Stansbury said. "But we scored 93 points and shot 56 percent against a zone." In fact the Cardinal abandoned that scheme for the final minutes, long after the game had been lost.
Yet for much of the first half the Pac-10 team looked like a winner. With 6-10 Rob Little scoring his team's first eight points and 6-11 Haryasz losing coverage consistently, Stanford gave the Dogs all they could handle and then more. And when guard Chris Hernandez and his backcourt mates tossed in some three-pointers State rapidly fell behind, by six, then ten, and finally twelve points. An open layup by Haryasz convinced Stansbury to call time to settle the troops.
"Everything Stanford did was right and we couldn't get stops early," the coach said. "They scored on 10 of 11 possessions at one point and made some big shots." But, Stansbury added, "that wasn't going to continue."
The show of confidence must have been infectious because the Dogs defense bore down and limited Stanford to four more points into intermission. Those stops became opportunities for State to finally hit the gas pedal, and before SU could get set Frazier and Power sank treys in transition and chop the deficit in half. After matching misses and turnovers those backcourt Bulldogs did it again, striking for another pair of threes and tying the score 41-41. A free throw and rebound basket by Roberts gave State the 44-43 halftime advantage.
"When we got stops it changed," Stansbury said. But stops were just half the equation; scoring baskets was the other, and Frazier and Power came through. "When you play against a zone you can only throw it inside so many times," the coach said.
Instead Frazier threw it up and in, hitting for six treys in eight tries en route to a 20-point night. "It felt real good," the senior guard said. "I came out of my shooting slump and it came at the right time. My teammates found me in open positions."
In the process he and Power (14 points) opened up Roberts to finish with 23 points. That and his 14 rebounds were game-bests. Roberts also got help from sub-center Campbell with eight points, four boards, and four blocked shots (three in the second half) that stifled Stanford's post men. "Campbell gave us more minutes than we anticipated, the emotion and energy carried him through today," Stansbury said.
"I just felt good to get back out there again, to get to run and play," said Campbell, coming off a pulled calf muscle. "I tried to play as long as I could and as hard as I could."
And after the shaky first ten minutes the Bulldogs played about as well as they could, signified by only nine turnovers—six of them in the opening half. Four Cardinal starters got into double-figures with Hernandez scoring 17 and hitting three threes. Haryasz added 14 points with nine rebounds. But by game's end Stanford had been held to 38% overall accuracy and just 27% in the second half with nine field goals. "And three of those came late," said a proud Stansbury.
Speaking of late, this dominating performance showed that maybe, just maybe, the Bulldogs are reaching some sort of peak here at the end of the season. And, if they can play the same way Sunday, that their season won't end for at least another week. Taking on Regional top-seed Duke is a tall order but, after just battling through the regular season, State might have saved something special for the post-season.
"Some of these guys just don't want to go home, like myself," said Roberts. "It's a new season right here, whatever happened before is just the past."
Coming Saturday: MSU practice report, Regional Notes