"We were dead-last in the SEC and we had to come out and get a win, and we did" said guard Richard Delk, who contributed three treys and nine points to State's cause. Twin brother Reginald had an even bigger, or at least hotter, hand in the victory with 15 of his team-best 18 points coming on longballs. In his previous three games Delk was a combined 2-of-13 at the arc. This was an entirely different sort of day.
"We just got hot tonight, you know?" he said. "That's how the game goes." The ‘we' part was correct as besides the eight bombs dropped by the Delk family Slater and Barry Stewart struck for two apiece, and Ben Hansbrough one. The Bulldogs came up just short of the school record of 14 made-treys, but then 13 was sufficient.
"When you shoot the ball good things happen," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "We had some guys tonight jump up, take some shots they've been taking and just not making the last three games." During that losing streak State shooters were 20-of-70, or 29% at the arc. This day the Dogs hit 13-of-27, 48%.
"They gave us openings and we just knocked down shots," Richard said. "We didn't plan it but we knew we could push the ball upcourt and get open shots. And we did."
While Stansbury didn't gameplan for long-range shooting, he did have some direct demands of the Dogs. Preparations were more about basic facts of ball such as defending and rebounding, things indicating all-around effort. And specifically for this matchup, to play aggressively on defense even if it meant giving up some easy opportunities to Tiger big man Glen Davis. The trick was to keep everyone moving and, hopefully, wear down a thin LSU lineup.
"We wanted to make it up-tempo, make Davis get up and down the floor. And I think we got to them in stages, I don't think they defended as well down the stretch due to fatigue. Us being aggressive paid off." Indeed the Tigers showed the strains at the end of the first half and midway of the second, when the Bulldogs were at their best.
Thus despite a slight edge in overall shooting and big margin on the backboards, the Tigers couldn't make the key plays, Slater said. "We did, everything we were supposed to do at the right time. It was there for us."
At first these tactics seemed to be mis-firing at each end as LSU bulled to a14-3 lead by 13:27. It would have been even worse had the Tigers not committed five turnovers, because they hit seven of their first ten shots and still led by 11, 18-7, at the eleven-minute mark. Then Stewart, who had missed his previous eight trey-tries in three games, broke his personal drought with a longball.
Slater and Reginald Delk followed suit, and at 7:11 another Delk bomb swished to make it a one-point affair. "We were a little bit up-tight, I don't think we defended well in transition," Stansbury said. "We subbed went smaller and started defending better. And Reg started making some shots." Such as the go-ahead trey at 2:28 for State's first lead, 35-33. Forward/center Charles Rhodes had been nigh-invisible most of the half but he emerged for a couple of buckets, one at the buzzer, sending the teams to their locker rooms tied 39-39.
It might as well have stayed that way all through a frantic ‘third quarter' that saw eleven changes of lead. LSU's last time to enjoy the advantage came at 62-61 when Davis muscled in for an inbounds-pass dunk. The Tigers had the ball back, too, only to get caught by the shot-clock.
Rhodes had just subbed back in and set the screen that guard Jamont Gordon used to drive the left-lane and loop the ball over a Tiger's paw for the go-ahead layup at 7:51. LSU's Terry Martin had his perimeter shot stuffed and Rhodes finished the fastbreak. And Reginald Delk was able to airmail a three before the foul by Garrett Temple that produced a four-point play.
"We knew if they played their type of game it would be difficult for us," said Slater. "They wanted to slow it down. But we're a running team so we had to make sure we got in transition and kept running. And our three-point shooters were kind of on today."
"We did not get back in transition very well and they hit three-pointers all over us," Tiger coach and former MSU aide John Brady said. "In the second half we played transition defense slightly better but they beat us off the dribble constantly." Delk followed Gordon's example with a high looping layup on the same side that had State in front 71-64 inside of six minutes and LSU calling for time at 5:44. It was too late.
Rhodes offset a LSU bucket by banking in his own and then blocking consecutive Tiger shots. Stansbury halted play to set something up at 2:55, and while it didn't work the Dogs twice got offensive rebounds and kept eating up the time. And with the shot clock running down Hansbrough went to the rack for a layup and 75-66 lead with one hundred seconds left. If any icing was needed Gordon and Rhodes provided it; the former disdained working the clock but drove, threw behind his back, and produced a three-point play with Rhodes' dunk and free throw. Though, Gordon foolishly earned a technical foul after blocking Davis' trey-try.
Davis did chunk in three long shots in the late seconds, extending his game-scoring lead to 27 points. He topped all rebounders with 10. Temple had 16 points, Terry Martin 14 and Tasmin Mitchell 11. But the Tigers also lost the ball 19 times, and while that didn't produce a ton of Bulldog points it cost LSU chances they couldn't afford.
Slater scored 15 points for State with Gordon adding 14 and Rhodes 13, though he only managed two rebounds. In fact the Bulldogs were beaten on their own boards 36-26, but the Tigers converted their second-chances into just seven points. Stansbury also liked a positive assist/turnover rate, something his squad struggled with during the losing stretch.
"I thought Jamont had a fantastic floor game," the coach said of Gordon's seven assist against two turnovers. "Particularly in the first half, he got in the lane and kicked the ball out to those shooters. And Ben Hansbrough came off the bench and gave us good steady minutes."
The win definitely steadied State's situation in this shaky SEC West, where nobody is better than break-even. While still far short of an ideal pace going into the second half of the league schedule, the Bulldogs also aren't so far behind their counterparts. And they get shots at two immediately in front this week, albeit on the road at Alabama and Auburn. So State players understand they have only halted a slide for the moment; making progress is another matter.
"The next games are going to be away," Reginald Delk said. "If we'd lost I think we would have had our heads down. This is a big win."