As State players left the Humphrey Coliseum court their actions and attitudes looked more like a title team than one that had just slipped back above break-even. "It was very special for us the players, and the coach," freshman guard Jamont Gordon said. "Everybody was jumping around, hugging, dancing." Sure, this was a rivalry win; and yes, it came on Senior Day for three upperclassman Bulldogs. Yet the emotions came more from having won out over long-season odds at last. "It really made our season right now," said freshman guard Richard Delk.
"With all this team has been through this season it really capped it off by winning this game against Alabama," said Rhodes, one of three Dogs in double-digits.
Coach Rick Stansbury echoed the sentiment. "I don't know if I've ever been more proud of a group of guys from the standpoint of what they've been through, all the adjustments they made, their ability to stay positive and stay together and keep improving."
Certainly the Bulldogs had every reason to go into the home finale downcast. In a season already full of setbacks, the team suffered one more major blow with the loss of junior guard Dietric Slater to a Wednesday knee injury at Arkansas. Slater was playing the best ball of his college career and had been the team's offensive sparkplug in preceeding Saturday wins over Auburn, Mississippi, and Georgia. He joined senior guard Jamall Edmondson, ill all week, on the sidelines, leaving State even more short-handed than usual. It also meant the four-guard lineup that had keyed MSU's other weekend wins was unavailable.
And still the available roster was able to put together effective enough lineups to not only play with the Crimson Tide but beat them, often at their own game.
"It's obvious who was supposed to win that game," Stansbury said. "But our guys never accepted that."
Far from it; State hit Alabama with eight quick points and rode that initial burst of confidence for the full 40 minutes. Even when the Tide took a short-lived lead in the first half, or rallied to even the score with over 15 minutes left, the Bulldogs never rattled. Nor should the home crowd of 7,237 been surprised at that by now, said first-year guard Gordon.
"We've gotten used to the game. Like Coach told us, we ain't freshmen no more, we should be able to handle these things."
Though it was Senior Day, there was also more than sentiment to Stansbury's starting lineup. With Alabama built around an imposing front line, putting 7-2 senior Wesley Morgan in the low post so Rhodes could play forward made good sense. And with Slater out, little-used senior wingman Michael Boler got his first college start. "This is something I haven't done since high school. He told me yesterday in practice I was going to start, I couldn't wait to get out there and get the game started." So much so that he awoke at 4:00 a.m. for his 4:00 p.m. tipoff.
Those seniors proved their worth early, too. Boler shook off an initial miss to drain his second chance at a trey, and Morgan converted a layup in traffic. With freshman guard Reginald Delk and Gordon also sticking threeballs the Bulldogs bolted to a 15-4 lead in barely four minutes.
"The seniors knocked down some big shots," Reginald Delk said. "We all got into it, and it felt pretty good."
Alabama, which hasn't had the smoothest sailing this season either, settled down and got the ball to their big men, particularly freshman center Richard Hendrix. The big kid essentially was his team's offense early on, scoring seven of the first nine Tide points before he came down wrong on a rebound and had to sit a spell. Forward Evan Brock and guard Ron Steele picked it up from there to cut the deficit to 17-14. The Bulldogs briefly stretched the margin a bit but also began rushing jumpers and forcing passes, as so often this SEC season.
Alabama forward Jermareo Davidson asserted himself at last with five quick points to tie the score 24-24, and at 3:07 backup guard Alonzo Gee was left open for a three-pointer that gave the Tide their first lead, 27-26. It was also their last lead.
"We got a little too over-excited," said Gordon. "Everybody was feeling good and we just started forcing things." Stansbury got his team settled after five misses and a couple of mistakes, and Reginald Delk got a tough running jumper to drop that put State back in front. But the key play of the half might have come from Morgan, who the next time down got his hands on a rebound and somehow flipped it in while being fouled for a three-point play.
Another offensive board, this after Richard Delk missed the front end of a 1-and-1 situation, turned out well as he got the ball back and scored it. Gordon exploded for a reverse-layup and ten-point lead, and it took a long Gee jumper—later ruled a two-pointer—for Alabama to be within 37-29 at the half. But not too far into the second period the Tide had it tied up again with Davidson notching a pair of baskets, including a second-chance jumper for a 39-39 count at 15:56.
If the Dogs were going to fold this was the time. Instead, "We withstood that little span," Stansbury said. "And we came right back down and scored." Richard Delk did, breaking the deadlock with a trey from the left corner. But it was Rhodes and Gordon who changed the game.
"There was a timeout they were both challenged," said Stansbury. "And when Charles came back in he was a difference. He defended and rebounded better and took the ball to the rim more." Rhodes powered through the Tide zone for a pair of buckets and a 46-42 lead, while Gordon picked up his defense on Steele, Alabama's cat-quick point guard who didn't have the muscle to cope with the 6-4 Bulldog.
"It was a hard job but I stayed down, didn't go for his fakes and stayed in front of him and played great D," Gordon said. At the same the Delks or Boler chased Gee and Jean Felix around the backcourt, while Rhodes and either Morgan or Stelmach battled the big Tide frontcourt on more even terms. Davidson and Hendrix found many of their shot blocked or altered as the Bulldogs banged away, with the officials staying clear of the mayhem inside.
"We just kept throwing bodies at them and it helped in our favor," Morgan said, "because you could tell in the second half they were tired. And Charles went to work on them."
When Alabama went back to man-defense Boler kicked the ball to Richard Delk for a three-pointer, and Stelmach twice went out to the perimeter unguarded. Each time he cashed in the open-trey to keep the State lead at ten points. That cushion was very handy as for three minutes both sides went cold or were careless and scored little. But of course this played to State's favor as time ran off the clock. The last challenge came at 5:32 when Gee hammered home a bomb for a 59-54 score.
Gordon answered with an aggressive attack of the goal. "I got a little ball-screen and drove in, that's what I'm good at. And I made my shot." And as soon as he did Stansbury called time to make sure the whole team, and Gordon in particular, understood to work the clock a bit more before firing the rest of the way. And on the other end Rhodes made a great ‘bad' play; he fouled Brock on a drive that would have ended in a dunk, then the Tide forward missed both free throws.
Gordon made that hurt with his own free throws, and the next time down not only got the reverse-layup to drop but drew a foul and made another free shot. There was 2:09 left but with a 66-56 lead the Bulldogs only had to make the Tide use up time to finish this one. They actually did even better as Rhodes rattled in a layup and with the shot clock expiring Reginald Delk drilled one final threeball.
Stansbury even had the luxury of giving his seniors a brief curtain call at 0:27, letting the ill and injured Edmondson take the home court for one last time, before he, Morgan, and Boler left at 10 ticks. "It was just good to be out there," Morgan said. It was good for State the two healthy seniors were out there, as Morgan scored nine points with four rebounds in 20 minutes. Boler added five in 14 minutes.
"We play our roles, we play hard and solid defense," said Boler. "And when our time comes to do things to help win game we have to step up and make those plays."
Still most of the plays came from underclassmen. Gordon led with 17 points, eight assists, and six rebounds, while Rhodes had 16 points with seven boards. Reginald Delk hit a pair of treys and totaled 10 points, while his brother Richard had eight points and four assists. Five Dogs combined to block seven Tide shots, too.
Davidson led Alabama with 17 points and 11 rebounds, but was 7-of-19 from the floor. Gee had 15 points off the bench and Henxrix a dozen as he was held in check the second half. Alabama shot under 40% to State's 48%. The most surprising stat was a 34-22 margin in paint-scoring favoring the smaller Dogs.
"Mississippi State played terrific," said Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried. "You've got to give them credit, we ran into a team that played exceptionally well."
With the win the Bulldogs earned the West #4 seed and a noontime first-round matchup with the East #5 at next week's league tournament. The opponent will not be set until after Sunday's Arkansas-Georgia game, but Stansbury didn't care about the matchup in Nashville next Thursday. "It doesn't matter at this point. Today assures us of a four-seed and opportunities to do other things." As in, to try to win at least a game or two more and improve credentials for a possible NIT bid.
Which would be a welcome reward for this Bulldog bunch after a long, hard season. "This team has been through so much," said Rhodes. "From transfers, people quitting, people getting hurt. It just felt real good to come out and get a win. Because people don't realize what this team has been through from day-one, and we've overcome a lot."