"At least we got a win, and got a learning experience from it," said guard Jamont Gordon.
State wrapped up the pre-league home schedule with a 8-2 record, while Alabama State lost the first-ever meeting of the programs and left 2-7. It was also ASU's third loss this semester to a SEC club.
What it was not was an impressive evening for the home team. Oh, the Bulldogs out-shot and out-rebounded the visitors by healthy statistical margins. Coach Rick Stansbury wasn't overly impressed by any numbers though. He said the same thing Gordon did about learning from a sloppy win, "But by no means was I very pleased with the way we played for 40 minutes."
Even leading State scorer Gordon was uncomfortable despite a 16-point, seven-rebound outing with three assists and three steals. And not because he fouled out towards the end of a ragged second half, either. "We didn't have that same energy tonight, we didn't play hard like have the last couple of games. I don't know what it was.
"I think we took this like we know we can beat them and we don't have to play as hard." State did show some intensity at times in the first half, then seemed to punch the clock for the last period. It was sufficient but not satisfying and let Alabama State chop a hefty halftime deficit to a more respectable final margin of defeat.
Two Hornet starters scored in double-digits, and guard Andrew Hayles not only topped his team but the whole evening with his 23 points. His seven boards were as good as any State starter. Hayles had the basket for ASU's only lead, but it was in the second half he played harder than anyone on the floor to get 15 of his points. Forward Edun Moses had 13 points and four of his team's 36 boards.
State got 12 points and five rebounds from starting center Jarvis Varnado, who also got half his team's eight blocks. Guard Reginald Delk added 11 points and backup center Vernon Goodridge had a game-best nine rebounds with five points. More impressive was the third Bulldog pivot to get in the game; Charles Rhodes tallied eight points and seven rebounds in just 17 minutes.
"I'm just trying to get back to being the old Charles Rhodes," the junior said. "My wrist is still bothering me but I'm trying to play through it."
"I thought Charles came in and tried to give us a spark," said Stansbury, who only praised the post-play this contest. "I thought Vernon hustled, he got on the backboards for us. I think our post guys worked harder, they ran the floor. Jarvis still has that (hurt) ankle but he had season-high minutes, he's doing a lot of good things for us."
For a while it looked as if Gordon was playing one-on-five and winning. He scored eight of State's first 11 points while the Hornets managed just six. The visitors didn't rattle and caught up by 12:58 on a Moses trey to tie the count 13-13. This came right after Rhodes subbed-in for the first time.
He bulled to the basket for a go-ahead score and Richard Delk pulled for a trey that had ASU stopping play. But the Bulldogs were finally up to team-speed as Gordon drove for two, Rhodes fed Barry Stewart for three and then worked for two more buckets of his own and a 27-15 lead by 8:30. Stewart made another highlight by leaving his defender flat-footed and driving the baseline for a two-handed stuff and 14-point cushion.
The margin reached 21 two ticks before halftime on Ben Hansbrough free throws, as State ended the period on a 11-3 run with six different Dogs getting at least one point in that stretch. MSU had also doubled ASU's shooting in the period, 58.6% to 29.2%.
But that was the best of the Bulldogs this game. "We came out the second half and for whatever reason we just weren't as sharp as we have been," Stansbury said. "You can point to a lot of things." Such as plenty of perimeter fouls that indicated lax defensive focus. The shooting also fell off sharply, especially from long range. After making 4-of-10 trey-tries in the first half the Dogs went 1-of-10 in the second.
Stewart hit that lone longball for a 58-34 score, then missed four-straight while his teammates became sloppy in both shot selection and ball protection. The Hornets used some long rebounds and MSU turnovers to get cheap baskets and pull with 58-42, causing Stansbury to call time for a talk. All momentum had been lost though, so it was just a matter of matching scores the rest of the way.
"I just didn't think as a team we functioned as well as we have been," Stansbury said. Even then State still had a 46-36 margin in rebounds and out-shot the Hornets 48% to 35%. But after a week of good assist-turnover ratios the Dogs had 17 giveaways to 11 productive passes. They did entirely dominate in shots blocked, eight to one.
"Give Alabama sate some credit, they hung around and got some shots and played hard," Stansbury said. "But we didn't take care of the ball as we have been. Ben hasn't had six turnovers in the last three games. I just didn't think we had that extra step. I'm realistic enough to know it happens but you don't accept it."
The Dogs have two days to regain their drive before leaving Wednesday afternoon for Jackson and a Thursday evening game with New Orleans. Tipoff at the Mississippi Coliseum is 7:00. Last December, State took care of the Privateers handily; Stansbury is not taking this rematch for granted. "We're playing a team that's much-improved, they've got a couple of people eligible for us and the whole team back that we struggled with here last year."
But the coach has no plans to disappoint the crowd expected to come see the Bulldogs on their ‘other' home court. Stansbury teams are 4-0 in the Mississippi Coliseum and have played before capacity crowds every year. "We like going to Jackson because we have a great alumni base there, we've had a great turnout. It's an opportunity for a lot of people to go see us play."
State will hold a brief open workout Wednesday afternoon with an autograph session to follow at around 6:00. The Bulldogs will be joined by the Lady Bulldogs there, with a Thursday double-header tipping off at 4:30 as the women take on New Orleans also.