"We've got to look at it as we did our job tonight," said Stewart, one of four Bulldogs to score double-digits. As well as one of the backcourt quartet that erased Alabama's intermission advantage with a fast barrage of three-point baskets. It was the first time this year State had won a game after trailing at the break, but no Dog seemed to think it that big of a deal.
"The only difference in the second half and first half is we made shots," said Stewart, who hit four of his side's 11 treys. It was the fourth-straight game State has gone double-digit makes from the arc.
"We have four guys on that perimeter," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "And we bring Riley (Benock) off the bench. Any of those five any night are capable of knocking down a couple of threes." Or more, such as the trio of treys sunk by guard Phil Turner; all during that blitz to begin the second period. "Talking to Coach pregame he was telling me take my shots if the big guy doesn't want to get on you," said Turner, who plays ‘big' forward in State's four-guard set. "I saw it was time I needed to step it up."
Turner made enough other shots to finish as top Dog scorer with 17 points, while Stewart and guard Dee Bost both had 13. Center Jarvis Varnado added 11 points with 10 rebounds and three blocks. And Benock came in to knock down a pair of longballs.
"And off my bench we got 22 points," Stansbury said. "As long as we can play that way the better we can become." With the win Stansbury tied his former boss Richard Williams for the most SEC coaching victories at State, with 89 apiece.
Alabama's bench provided their top scorer as Mikhail Torrance got a game-best 20 points in 22 minutes of relief work. Guards Alonzo Gee and Senario Hillman added 15 and 12 points, while forward JaMychal Green had 11 points and ten rebounds. The Tide was working without their point guard and top perimeter shooter as Ronald Steele was sidelined by injury for this road game. Still, "The guys we had played their hearts out," said Coach Mark Gottfried.
And played well enough to lead for just about the entire opening half by maximizing the available personnel in some difficult matchups. Alabama even ended up ahead in rebounding, 36 to 34, and shot nearly as well overall as State. Had they been able to take and make a few more treys the Tide could have given the home team an even harder time of it.
"I thought they came in here and battled and competed exceptionally well," Stansbury said. "And Torrance was the difference in keeping them in the game."
Alabama tried setting the initial tone, going right at the lane for jumpers and layups to take the early 8-4 lead. They were also taking advantage of three State turnovers as the Dogs were disjointed early. "I thought the first half we had a little bit of Arkansas hangover," Stansbury said. "Big crowd, big game, I thought we played a little bit tentative." And inaccurately, too, as State didn't shoot so sharp in the first half. It took a kind-iron bounce for Stewart to collect the team's first trey and they would net just two more by halftime.
Thus the Tide was able to keep a modest margin for the last 15 minutes of the opening period, without any benefit of long-range shooting. Timely attacks by Hillman and Gee exploited gaps in the Dog defense and made it a five-point difference as late as 30-25, as Torrance also made his presence known. "They beat us to the hole a bunch the first half, they brought Jarvis away form the hole with ball-screens," Varnado said. Meanwhile over a dozen-minute stretch State missed eight of nine trey-tries, as well as a few free throws. Even as backup forward Romaro Osby scored some dramatic goals inside it must matched the Tide's pace and a driving score by guard Brandon Hollniger made it 36-33 at the half.
In the locker room Stansbury didn't discuss the misses as much as Bost settling for shots (1-of-7 in the half) rather than creating for others. "He said find my teammates," Bost said. Down 38-33 after Green scored first in the new period, Bost did just that. "The second half he became a point guard again," Stansbury said, "he got the ball to open people. Barry and Phil stepped up and made open shots."
Actually it was Turner and Stewart in that order, as Bost's drives made the Bama defense vacate a wide stretch on the right wing. The duo combined for three quick strikes to put State in front, which loosened things inside for a Varnado hookshot. When Bost simply outran coverage for a layup it was 46-41 and the Tide was calling for time ten ticks before the media break was due. Somebody must have forgotten to mention guarding that right corner though because Turner, then Stewart, were left open there on consecutive trips with the same results and a 52-45 scoreboard.
"I thought they came out the second half, especially the start, and made some big shots," Gottfried said. "The first half we did a pretty good job defending the three point line, not letting them get loose. The first six, seven minutes of the second half we didn't defend them nearly as well."
Not until 13:46 did the Tide find the long range, with Torrance collecting their first threefer. State stayed hot as Benock struck from, yes, that starboard side, pushing the lead to ten points (60-50) for the first time. Benock also did the honors with a three (same side of course) for State's 70th point while Bama had but 57.
"And we adjusted on that ball screen some, they didn't get to the hole near as much the second half," said Stansbury.
Only Alabama wasn't done and State relaxed just a bit early, allowing the Tide to creep back into late contention as Gee, Hillman, Hollinger, and Torrance all manufactured baskets. With 100 seconds still to run it was a 72-68 scoreboard, and the Dogs nearly wasted their turn as Varnado barely drew a foul before the shot clock sounded. He only made one chance but swatted Gee's layup try. Stewart intercepted the inbounds toss and threw long for Varnado, snowbirding en route for a dunk at 47 seconds. From there it was merely a matter of how many free throws or garbage buckets the Dogs could collect, with Turner accounting for the last score on a hanging banker.
"In the second half the crowd got into it, that helped us and gave us momentum and a lot of energy," said Stewart. For his part Stansbury singled out Bost' change of pacing, as the rookie garnered seven of his ten assists in the second half. "And he only attempted one three."
Saturday the Bulldogs take on a visitor that has historically made a living off three-pointers. Though, this year's Vanderbilt team ranks only 9th in SEC trey-making so far, and State doesn't have to fear the range and wrath of a graduated Shan Foster. Tip-off in The Hump is 7:00 as the Dogs try to stay a step ahead of their Division peers, as well as remain perfect in overall league play.
"Saturday we've got to take care of business," Stewart said.