"It ended up in the right guy's hands," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "A guy who sees something any time he touches it."
Coach and team were just as glad to see a 22-footer by UA forward Charles Thomas rattle out at the horn, giving State a victory in the SEC opener for both teams. The Bulldogs improved to 11-3 while the Razorbacks left with an identical record. It was State's fifth-straight win over Arkansas, and the seventh in the last eight meetings of the SEC West rivals.
"To get a win at home to start the SEC season off is huge," said center Wesley Morgan.
No Dog came up bigger at crunch time than the 6-3 Slater, who did not start but definitely finished out this back-and-forth contest. Arkansas had come back, again, from four points down to first tie the count on free throws by guard Ronnie Brewer and then take a 67-65 lead on a Brewer layup at 1:05. Both scores came on full-court pressure and Bulldog turnovers, the latter by Slater himself.
The Bulldogs did get the ball back on a UA miss and guard Jamont Gordon scooped a ludicrous left-handed layup from waist level to even things up again. Arkansas stopped play at 26.8 seconds before Brewer, the league's leading scorer, took an open three-point attempt from out top. It kicked back into Slater's hands. "I knew if I got it I was going all the way to the hole," he said. "I wasn't going to stop and hold the ball because time was running out."
In fact Stansbury had told the team to force the action if transition was open. It was, though by the time Slater got to the goal 7-0 Razorback Steven Hill was in position. "I know he leads the SEC in blocked shots so I had to do the reverse. Luckily that's my move anyway."
Arkansas guard Eric Ferguson got the ball back upcourt in time but Slater and Gordon had switched off screens to defend Brewer, so the 6-8 Thomas had to pump up the last chance that missed long.
"That's quite a way to start off the SEC season," said Stansbury. "We were fortunate to beat a very good, much-improved team."
Slater finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, one of four Dogs in double-digit scoring. Forward Charles Rhodes, who had the first eight MSU points of the evening, ended up with a team-best 18 and nine boards of his own. Guard Reginald Delk had 11 points and Gordon 10 with nine more boards, as State beat the bigger Hogs on the glass 45-34.
The Bulldogs also made life in the lane miserable for Razorback postmen, holding Thomas to five points and shutting out forward Darian Townes entirely. Hill did get ten points off the bench on putbacks and hooks but did not change the game enough. "We did a terrific job on their big guys," Stansbury said, "they get five points out of those two starting spots."
Thus Arkansas had to rely on their backcourt for scoring and Brewer (24 points) and Jonathan Modica (20) nearly offset other issues. But they were just a combined 3-of-13 on trey-tries and the whole team 5-of-22, unable to consistently score from long range against either zone or man-to-man sets.
"We wanted to change defenses on them," Stansbury said. "We didn't anticipate playing man as much." This was partly because the Dogs have only been using man-defense extensively the last three weeks, and because two players were not available. Starting point guard Jamall Edmondson was again sidelined by nagging hamstring problems, and alternate forward Walter Sharpe again under suspension for "coach's decision" as Stansbury put it. The Razorbacks did do damage against either setup, most often in transition.
"They made those runs in the second half," said Stansbury. "They're an experienced team and will make some shots. But we withstood those runs."
It was a running and gunning evening anyway and both teams enjoyed the end-to-end pace. Initially it was all-Rhodes for State, taking seven of the first nine shots. Arkansas was comfortable in transition as well, and better in defending it by forcing turnovers off MSU's young backcourt and cashing them in. It was all tied 19-19 when Slater drove for a basket, Rhodes got a free throw to go and Reginald Delk sank a trey. Slater took a kick-back pass and swished his own three for a 30-21 MSU margin at 4:09. Gordon and Slater combined for two more transition scores so the Dogs could take a 36-26 lead into their locker room.
Of course it could not be that easy and Arkansas made better use of the break. Still down ten, Modica made free throws and then stuck a corner-three off the break. Brewer and Modica keyed a surge that by 14:35 had the Razorbacks in front for the first time since 12-11, this count standing 44-43.
The Bulldogs shrugged this challenge off with some help, as UA coach Stan Heath protested a foul call too strongly and was tagged for a technical at 12:52. Forward Piotr Stelmach made both foul shots. He later hit two more in place of Gordon, who twice went to the bench with cramps. State pushed out to a 56-49 lead by 9:17, only to see the Razorbacks reel off eight points in two minutes to regain a lead at 7:06. So it went until the last frantic minutes and Slater's marvelous, impromptu effort.
"They thought we were going to hold the ball for a last-second shot," he said. "They obviously didn't know who had the ball! I held it long enough!" Long enough to go end-to-end and secure a SEC-opening win.
"I just kept telling my teammates to stay together and keep playing hard," Gordon said. "And we came out on top."