"I'm proud to get the win against a very good Charlotte team," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "Our biggest challenge was making sure our kids understood coming off two tough losses we don't have a chance to recover against a cupcake."
The Atlantic-10 49ers certainly didn't play like pastry. Firing up 37 shots from the three-point arc and making 11, Charlotte was able to lead in both halves and keep the pressure on the home team. For their part the Bulldogs often got caught up in a duel of longballs, taking 24 and making eight. The average was OK, the attack not so much as it played to smaller Charlotte's skills.
Everything changed after the 49ers went in front 46-45 at 10:39 of the last half. "We just slowed down and got good shots," said G Ben Hansbrough. Including attempts from the free-throw line, where State scored 22 times. Gordon and Hansbrough combined for 11 of those charity points, ten together in the second half.
"At halftime we talked about whichever team was toughest and wanted it the most," said Stansbury. "I think it was apparent we found ways to do that." Those ways came from more aggression on defense, better rebounding that turned into transition opportunities, and getting the ball closer to the goal. Gordon did hit a couple of treys in the first half but got most of his markers on driving layups and foul shots. He also topped both teams with a dozen rebounds and score several times on second-chances.
Off the bench Hansbrough added 15 points, also with two threeballs, and six boards. Fellow frosh and sub G Barry Stewart had 13 points and starting F Charles Rhodes 11 with seven rebounds. Big Dogs hit jumpshots and backcourt players hit the boards, giving State the sort of all-around effort needed when it mattered.
"We came out the second half, played with toughness, played defense, rebounded the ball," Gordon said. "We did all the little things." Or to Stansbury's eyes a very big thing: We had two turnovers the second half and that's a pretty good stat for us. 11 turnovers for the game, that's a great stat for us!"
It didn't begin that well for either team with four combined giveaways through two minutes. Rhodes had a couple of quick dunks but State still trailed by four and five points early. The Dogs tied it up at 14, then 17, and when Rhodes fed Hansbrough for a backdoor layup and free throw the Bulldogs were in front 20-19 at 4:47. After a couple of lead changes and with the score tied 49er Carlos Williams missed a rushed one and Hansbrough beat the buzzer with a trey for a 29-26 Bulldog margin at intermission.
State carried some momentum from that last shot of one half into the second as Gordon hung long enough to coax in a layup. Starting C Jarvis Varnado boarded and scored a miss that had Charlotte calling for time at 18:51. State was still able to stretch the lead out to 36-28 as Rhodes pulled on an open trey and hit.
But that longball sent the wrong message as the Dogs kept on pumping up trey tries. So did the 49ers and for a while both sides missed them all. Finally De'Angelo Alexander drained one and followed with a driving bankshot for a 40-37 score at 13:33, forcing Stansbury to stop play. Upon resumption State promptly missed a three-ball. At 12:22 and 10:37 Antwon Goldwire didn't, putting Charlotte ahead 46-45.
The Dogs finally took it back inside and Rhodes was able to draw the foul and convert twice. Next time down Reginald Delk coaxed in a tough roller, and when Rhodes hit on the baseline it was 52-46 for State. The 49ers weren't through and when Goldwire hit his fourth trey they were within 54-52, with the ball.
Ian Andersen lofted a longball, or tried; Reggie Delk stuffed it off the hand and Gordon scored the breakaway. Stewart fired from the corner with the shot clock running out and hit for a 60-52 difference. Charlotte began rushing their long shots and missing, and the Bulldogs were able to get into their preferred transition game. Gordon beat the defense for one fastbreak basket and Stewart turned a long rebound on one end into a flying layup at the other and 65-54 score.
Charlotte's best chance of any comeback came after Gordon was assessed a technical during a scramble and Goldwire hit free throws. A long three-attempt was well short and State was able to convert enough free throws down the stretch to counter 49er baskets. Goldwire did cut it to 74-69 with 43 ticks left but missed a trey and hurt an ankle fouling Richard Delk.
The 49ers hit just 34.3% from the floor and got only 11 chances at the stripe, making ten. Goldwire finished with a game-best 23 points while Alexander and E.J. Drayton added 14 and 12, the latter getting 11 of his team's 41 boards. State countered with 47 rebounds and 44% accuracy overall and those 22 free pitches made, though it took 41 tries to do so. Hansbrough himself missed a free throw, his first as a collegian. "You can't make them all!" he said.
For the fifth game of the year Stansbury adjusted his lineup, starting rookie Varnado ahead of senior Piotr Stelmach in the post. As the 49ers kept changing defenses the coach settled on a smaller lineup, mixing in Hansbrough and Stewart for a more agile defensive group also able to get up-and-down the floor.
Now the staff has to decide how to attack, and defend, this weekend's visitor as State prepares for Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and a 2:00 contest. Stansbury hasn't decided on a lineup but "I think I know which way we're going. We're' having to move people around and it's slow, but I like the direction we continue to head. We've just got to get better at some things, we're playing against good competition and it's making us better.
"It doesn't get any easier Saturday. Forget their name, they're picked to win their league and have eight seniors. They've gone to Detroit and won this year. It's one of those teams we've got to be able to forget the name and understand how good they are."
By the same token the Bulldogs are getting an idea of how good they can be. "We don't look at who we're playing," said Hansbrough. "We come out wit the same mentality, we go out and expect to win."