"The young guys have never been through a game like that on this level," said Edmondson. "So the veterans had to step up at the end of the game." They did as State improved to 2-0 with a second homecourt win in three days. The Indians evened their record at 1-1 with the loss, but not until they had thrown a scare into their SEC hosts.
"The last four minutes of the game if I'd had some Maalox I'd have taken the whole bottle," Coach Rick Stansbury said. He was only spared a more severe case of postgame heartburn by the timely play of his most veteran players, who he turned to after shuffling lineups as much as a limited roster allowed for the first 35 minutes.
"I'm just throwing them in there," the coach said. "But down the stretch we needed to be able to trust some people."
Crunch time came after Arkansas State bounced back from repeated double-digit deficits in the second half. The Bulldogs led by as many as ten points three times in the period, the last at 13:23 with the count 49-39. But the visiting Indians weren't leaving early. Consecutive treys by guard Jerry Nichols, who had missed his previous nine attempts from the arc, accelerated the surge. Finally it was a three-point play by Jim Jones, and open three-ball from Dereke Tipler followed by his pair of free throws that evened the scoreboard at 60-all with two minutes left for an inter-conference upset.
The Bulldogs, with just one basket made since the six-minute mark, ran the ball to guard Dietric Slater in the right corner. The junior started to pull the trigger but saw Stelmach standing unguarded near the top of the key. "I wasn't expecting that," Stelmach said of the kickout pass. "It wasn't like we planned it." Yet it worked out perfectly as the 6-9 forward fired and hit to put State back in the lead, to stay. "The top of the key is kind of my spot, I'm comfortable with that shot," Stelmach said.
The Bulldogs still weren't in the clear even after ASU turned one possession over and missed a tying attempt the next time down. After one Edmondson free shot at 0:52 Indian forward Marcus Ardison drew a foul as his short jumper rattled in and converted a three-point play for a 64-63 score. But Edmondson was pushed down and made two free throws at 0:22, then after Tipler's long try missed Edmondson went back to the stripe and converted a pair with 8.9 seconds on the clock.
"Give Arkansas State a lot of credit," said Stansbury. "They came in and played us tough. they outworked us, out toughed us, we were very fortunate to win the game."
Edmondson's clutch free throws gave the senior 15 total points for the night. Freshman guard Jamont Gordon led State with 16 points but 15 of those came in the first half as the rookie wore down after the break. "The first half I was really feeling it, the second half I got tired and didn't feel like going to the hole much."
Even the older Dogs got tired as Edmondson had to play 36 minutes, despite just coming off a strained groin. "Thank goodness for Jamall, he handled the ball against pressure," said Stansbury. "This is a guy who hadn't practiced basically for two weeks." Slater and Gordon put in 33 minutes each and Stelmach 27, less than 48 hours after playing their Saturday season-opener.
"It's a situation where we wanted to see how our kids would respond after a Saturday game," Stansbury said. "Obviously I wasn't too pleased but we found a way to get a win. Anytime this bunch can get a win in this situation we'll take it."
Three Indians scored in double-figures led by Wells, a Jackson native, with 19 points. His former Lanier High teammate and current Bulldog sophomore Charles Rhodes didn't like that. "He got off, I'm ticked!" Jones added 13 points and Tipler 12.
The Bulldogs took their time getting going, needing almost three minutes to score a basket with center Wesley Morgan flipping in a turnaround at 17:06. State had trouble holding onto the ball and even taking quality shots as 2-of-8 inaccuracy showed. Fortunately the Indians were just as sloppy, matching misses and turnovers alike.
Gordon put the Bulldogs in front for the first time by scoring his own miss, then coaxing in a driving layup. It was a play he used often in the half. "I saw smaller guards and I was a lot stronger than them so I took it to the hole." Stansbury also opened in a zone defense to limit how hard his shorthanded team had to work on that end of the court. And the Indians gave some early help with fast foul trouble, putting MSU in the bonus by 13:12.
State led by 21-10 at 8:56 after Gordon dropped in another driving shot. Then the Indians began working the perimeter for makable shots, and an open trey by Wells at 3:40 had ASU within 25-23. It was still a two-point game when Gordon took over with two hard drives for five points. And when he missed Morgan was able to tip it in. If not for two more Indian free shots on a technical, charged to Stansbury, State would have led by more than 36-31 at intermission.
The Bulldogs had a second-half chance to take control when, with the Indians missing consecutive trey-tries, Stelmach dunked a rebound and after canning free shots Slater turned a steal into a dunk and 43-33 lead. A turnaround bucket by Morgan kept the lead at ten and had Arkansas State calling time at 14:50. Their comeback began soon after.
"They made shots," Stelmach said. "Their guys made big shots." But not enough as ASU shot 36% for the game and 7-of-30 at the arc. The Bulldogs were no better from long range, 3-of-12, so Stelmach's trey certainly stood out. But State was more efficient inside and hit 21 of 47 total shots, 45%. That offset ASU's 38 to 35 advantage in rebounds, though it didn't make Stansbury any happier about how his team was beaten on the boards.
"They're a tough team," said Rhodes, who had seven rebounds to match Stelmach's total. "We just had to make little adjustments the second half."
Now the Bulldogs have to adjust to playing away from home, as they take on host Charlotte this Wednesday evening. The venue and the opposition will be markedly better than State's first two victims. "Coach said it will be a real test for how we respond in a tough situation against a good team," Stelmach said.
"It's going to be their home opener in their house so we have to be ready," said Rhodes. "We're really going to learn a lot about ourselves."
Stansbury already knows he won't have a full roster yet by Saturday, as freshman point guard Richard Delk is out at least another week with a foot stress fracture and soph center Walter Sharpe is still working to regain eligibility after the fall semester. After Charlotte the Bulldogs have three more games in a five-day span, so Stansbury said the pups have to give their elders more help in coming contests. "I'd like to be able to sub them more. We've got to get that trust level because we've got to play more people. We didn't have a lot of zip compared to Saturday.
"We have to get some other people on the bench ready to play. It's a young team, and they don't understand you can't get on a roller-coaster and play with emotion Saturday and not Monday. It's got to get consistent."