After coming out tentative in the first few minutes of the game, the Bulldogs were down 4-0 to Xavier before catching fire at the 17:03 mark and going on a 19-2 behind their tenacious defense to go ahead 19-6. During that span, junior two-guard Timmy Bowers and Austin scored 6 points each. Sophomore swingman Ontario Harper, playing with a stomach virus, scored 4 during this same span.
"Harper was a gametime decision," said Stansbury. "He got out of bed and came to the lockerroom right before the start of the game and said, 'Coach, I want to try to go.' Naturally, I wasn't going to tell him that he couldn't. To his credit, he came in and gave us everything that he had. We probably couldn't have won the ballgame without him because his ability to defend and rebound was very important in this game."
Xavier, beginning at the 7:15 mark, outscored the Bulldogs 6-4 only to see the Bulldogs score the next 10 points to put the lead at 33 to 12 with 2:28 to go in the first half. Xavier ended the half with a 3-0 run to make the halftime score 33 to 15, MSU.
Xavier's National Player of the Year candidate David West was held in check by MSU's Branden Vincent during the first half.
"I thought that Branden Vincent did a great job shutting down West," said Stansbury. "West had two points at halftime. That is what you have to have, guys understanding their roles and playing their roles. Branden is a big key to what this team is trying to do right now."
At the beginning of the second half, the Musketeers scored 8 straight points to pull to within 10, 33-23.
After scoring 8 points in the first half, Austin, now having shaken off any rust due to not being able to play in MSU's first 6 games of the season, began to dominate the offensive end of the court, scoring the next seven points of the game to put MSU back up 40-23.
State, after seeing Xavier score three points on a field goal and free throw, went on a 9 point run to up the difference to 23 points, 49-26.
MSU coach Rick Stansbury then brought in his reserves who extended the lead to 25, 57-32, at the 12:04 mark.
However, Xavier started to peck away at that lead behind the play of West. After MSU's sophomore center Marcus Campbell missed a dunk and two free throws, the Musketeers seemed to become energized and scored the next 10 points to cut the lead to 12, 57-45.
"We knew at halftime that they would make a run at us. All good teams do," said Stansbury. "On that run we kind of helped a little bit, because we turned it over a few times and missed some easy shots."
Stansbury brought his starters back in around the 8 minute mark but the teams continued to trade baskets.
At the 1:33 minute mark, Xavier scored a basket to cut the lead to 8, 67-59.
From that point, Mississippi State built the lead back out to 12 despite missing 4 of 6 free throw attempts.
Xavier scored on a dunk with a second left in the game to make the final score 71-61.
Xavier was led in scoring by West with 13 points (4 of 13 from the field). Coming into the game, West, a two-time Atlantic 10 player of the year and the leading vote-getter on the AP's preseason All-America team, was averaging 19.7 points per game. Also in double figures was true freshman Dedrick Finn, the Indiana High School Player of the Year last season, with 12 points. 11 points were scored by junior college transfer Anthony Myles. All-American candidate Romain Sato, averaging 14.5 points this season, scored 8.
Mississippi State was led in scoring by Austin's 28 points. Austin also claimed 9 rebounds. Other Bulldogs in double digits in scoring were Bowers with 18 and Michal Ignerski with 10.
"You look at (Mario Austin's) stat line, it is a pretty good stat line for someone who hasn't done much in four to six weeks," said Stansbury. "28 points and 9 rebounds is a pretty good stat line. As I've said all along, as good as he was last year, he has made a lot of progress. He got physically tired today but he was all over that floor from taking falls and diving after the ball. We thought that he had hyper extended his knee early in the game, but he fought through that."
Mississippi State outrebounded Xavier 43 to 41 and held the Musketeers to 35.3% from the field while shooting 49.2%.
"What I like about this team is we are playing so hard and playing together," said Stansbury. "It was a great team effort. And there is no question that getting Mario Austin back means so much to everybody."
However, even though it was a great team effort, Stansbury saw a couple of areas that his team needs to work on.
"There are two areas that we have to get better in down the stretch," said Stansbury. "We have to make free throws and not turn the ball over. We have to understand that they are going to run and trap you. You have to understand that you don't have to get into a hurry and just make easy passes late in the game."
Mississippi State now prepares for its upcoming game against Georgia State in Jackson, Mississippi Wednesday night.
Gene Swindoll is the publisher and owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial site for Mississippi State sports since October, 1996. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org