Coach Rick Stansbury knew exactly who to credit—or blame. The Bulldogs managed to battle Duke stars J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams essentially to a draw, but…"Ewing is that third guy," Stansbury said. "He's the guy that really hurt us, he completed every play down that stretch."
It was Ewing indeed who came through in the crunch when the #9-seeded Dogs were again in position to spoil brackets all across the land, not to mention TV programming plans. After State guard Shane Power scored on a baseline drive the Blue Devils were only ahead 55-35 with 3:16 to go. Over half the remaining time would pass before either side scored, with MSU forward Lawrence Roberts banging a dunk attempt off the front iron and Redick charging into a turnover.
With two minutes showing the Bulldogs tried to run a play only to have Reddick steal the soft bounce-pass. His running layup was blocked from behind by guard Winsome Frazier, but Ewing was trailing and scored the rebound at 1:35. Thus when Roberts did get a dunk down the Devils still had their lead, and with 61 seconds to go Ewing burst around the left side for a short lay-in and four point cushion.
Mississippi State had no answer as Power was jammed by Williams and guard Gary Ervin was rejected by Shavlik Randolph. Both swats were rebounded by Dukies for fouls and four icing free throws, the last fittingly enough by Ewing. "That's typical Duke basketball," said Ervin.
"You can pinpoint a lot of stuff," forward Ontario Harper said. "But what it came down to is they executed better than we did and we just didn't execute enough."
The stat sheet related that fundamental fact. The Blue Devils shot a little better, 38% to 32%; eked out a 43-39 edge on the backboards; and most of all they came up with whatever sort of do-or-done play was demanded. That was why Duke is still playing and the Bulldogs flew home to Starkville late Sunday evening to turn in game gear.
"That's why they're Duke I guess," said Stansbury. "It seemed every big play that had to be made down the stretch, Duke made those plays."
Ewing's clutch plays stood out most, though he had plenty of help from Redick (16 points) and Williams (13 points, 15 rebounds, and three blocked shots). The Devils were, as usual, infernally good at the foul line as well with 17-of-21 accuracy. Still the region's top seed was pushed to their limit and had to make those biggest plays.
"I think we had them on the ropes," said Harper, and no one in the media corps or Duke locker room would dispute the statement. After trailing by eight points at intermission and 35-24 with 17:40 on the second-half clock, the Bulldogs made it a contest to the end. "We came out the second half and got that game going our way," said Stansbury.
Just not all the way, though it cut too close for Duke's comfort. Roberts and Frazier opened the comeback with baskets for five points and Roberts swatted a Redick layup aside. The rally gained pace and a breakneck drive by guard Dietric Slater paid off and in transition Harper sank a corner-trey that had the Dogs within 40-39 and Duke calling time. But after Williams clanked a dunk Ervin raced end-to-end and State had its first lead since the 13:00 mark of the first half.
There was no mystery to the comeback, the coach said. "We didn't panic. We felt we'd play better off the second half and we did. We played better defense, and got the ball in transition a bunch."
Sadly, the Dogs could not finish on the same sort of run. A couple of lead-swaps meant the ‘fourth quarter' began with a 45-45 tie and a two-minute scoring drought with seven combined misses as two intense defenses got even fiercer. Ewing gave a preview of things to come with a trey at 8:20 and Williams converted a rebound, but Roberts dunked and Frazier threw in a turnaround, tying trey at 5:38. It was the last deadlock of the day as at 4:21 Williams rebounded, scored, was fouled and finished a three-point play.
Yet it was not what Duke did as much as what State failed to do in this span that set the closing tone. Harper was fouled at 5:16 and missedthe front end of a one-and-one for the lead. After a (wrong) call gave State the ball on the baseline Frazier forced a spinning long shot that aired. Down 53-50 State had Roberts on the line, making just one chance. And with the game 55-53 and possession after Redick charged, Ervin tried to force a drive when he had a three-on-one break going. He turned the ball over and Duke still led by two at 1:46.
"All we had to do was make some free throws and make a couple of layups in transition," Stansbury said. "We had those five trips to put us up two, and they go down and knock down a three and come back and score. It was pretty tough from that point on."
"That was an opportunity there," said Harper, who played perhaps his finest game as a Bulldog in probably his last day in the uniform. The senior scored 17 points and hit both his trey-tries.
That Harper, the #5 scorer on the squad, would lead the team and more than double his 8.0 average reflected how Duke forced State to play offense. Duke played straight man-on-man all day, but paid special attention to Bulldog shooters Frazier and Power. It showed: the pair were a combined 3-of-16 and Frazier was 2-of-8 at the arc. Harper said the effort was still made to create jumpshots for both, but early on he was freed to attack the goal himself. "We were getting to the goal, taking what they gave us, and we tried to make the best of it."
Harper did his part in the first half with a dozen points. Roberts also got the ball plenty of times in the low-post, but he also took too long to catch, set, and go up. The result was 2-of-10 shooting by the break with a couple of blocks and lots of contact as the officials let both sides have at each other freely. "We wanted to stay aggressive," Roberts said. "Certain times we weren't doing a good job attacking. To relieve our guards we had to do a good job attacking and Harper did a good job." If not for Harper the Dogs would have been much worse off than 30-22 at intermission. Duke fell behind 8-4, then got the offense going as Redick aired in his first longball at 13:44. By 12:07 the ‘home' team was in front, and while the scoring pace was glacial the Blue Devils were able to creep ahead 20-13 at 8:22.
State went over four minutes without a basket but an Ervin drive and hesitant three-pointer from Harper had the score 20-17. Still the Dogs had a frustrating half, unable to convert in transition and just 3-of-9 at the stripe. And the iron at that end proved incredibly unhelpful with a half-dozen layups and short shots rolling around, up, and off. Roberts even boarded his own missed free throw and flipped up a sure two only to see it rim out. The All-American ground of 17 brutal points, seven at the stripe, and had 11 turnovers, to end his college career with one more double-double. But he was just 5-of-18 shooting and a third of his misses just plain refused to fall.
"We missed a couple of shots point-blank," Harper said. Yet in the locker room the Dogs remained remarkably upbeat, and rewarded their coach's confidence with superb effort. "We held them to 38% and in the second half it's 33-33," Stansbury said. But his team also could not make up the lost ground.
"It was an up-and-down game," Frazier said. "The thing that killed us really was our free throws. We missed easy shots here and there, shots you make in practice didn't fall for us." More frustrating than the rim-outs was 11-of-21 free throwing (Duke was 17-of-21). And even one thing State did startlingly well, taking care of the ball, wasn't good enough. The Bulldogs had just six turnovers all game, yet in the last two minutes they lost it twice out top trying to work the wingmen open to shoot for a lead.
We played almost mistake-free until the end when they got their hands on a couple of balls," said Ervin, who's miscue was turned into Ewing's rebound basket. "They made big plays in crunch time."
Which is why Duke heads on to the next round while the Dogs wonder what this game, or for that matter this season, could have been. "We had our opportunities," said Stansbury. "Missed free throws, missed layups, that's part of the game. But we were special with effort and toughness, and our players left everything they had on the floor today. We just came up a little bit short."
In fact, coach and team might as well have been describing the whole campaign as they summarized their final appearance of 2004-05. "We fought back," said Frazier. "We weren't going to give up, we gave them all we had."