BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Ticker) -- Not having star forward Lawrence Roberts nearly resulted in a humiliating opening night loss for Mississippi State.
Ontario Harper scored a career-high 17 points to help the No. 14 Bulldogs escape with a 53-49 win over Fairfield in the opening round of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
A Preseason National Player of the Year candidate, Roberts was suspended last week by the NCAA for allowing the Portland Trail Blazers to pay for his trip to an individual draft workout before he decided to return for his senior season.
The reigning Southeast Conference Player of the Year may have missed the game regardless of the suspension after undergoing surgery Tuesday to repair a broken nose suffered in practice November 4. The 6-9 Roberts averaged 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game last season.
A senior swingman, Harper kept the Bulldogs in the game with 11 of the team's 20 points in the first half.
Fairfield held its biggest lead at 24-16 with 1:33 left in the first half, but Mississippi State scored the last four points of the first half and the first four of the second to tie the game a minute into the half.
Harper gave the Bulldogs their first lead, 29-28, when he completed a three-point play with 16:13 remaining.
Center Deng Gai, who scored 14 points, helped the Stags reclaim the lead for a short time, but Gary Ervin and Winsome Frazier both hit 3-pointers in the last two minutes to seal the victory for last season's SEC champions.
Mississippi State will face Birmingham Southern in the second round Friday night, with the winner advancing to the semifinals at New York's Madison Square Garden on November 18.
Fairfield will play Alabama A&M in the consolation game Friday.