"This is a big swing-game either way and we're definitely fighting for that two-seed in the West, knowing we're going to need the (SEC) tournament to get in the NCAA Tournament," said senior guard Riley Benock.
State also needed the sort of effort they indeed got from Renardo Sidney. The sophomore center reprised his dominating performance seen in early January when he scored 24 points in MSU's first win over Ole Miss. Sidney fell a bucket short of matching the points but in most ways was even more overpowering this time, topping everyone with 22 points, 12 rebounds, and just his sheer physical presence in the post. Most impressively, he did it without drawing any fouls until 15:57 of the second half.
"Sid played well today," said Benock, "and the whole team followed suit." Followed the game's plan, too, as the Bulldogs emphasized getting the ball to the big Dog early and often. Sidney was 8-of-12 from the field, including one late-game trey, and added five free throws. By contrast the whole Rebel squad made just eight free shots out of a mere 11 chances.
"He had some good stats today," said Coach Rick Stansbury, who actually thought Sidney could have been even more efficient. "The first half he was way too much finesse stuff. The second half he played to the rim." Thus playing to his strengths which the Rebel frontcourt just could not match. For that matter forward Kodi Augustus was able to score nine points on 3-of-5 work and get a couple of free shots as well.
"We just wanted to attack them more and draw fouls, and that helped us because we went to the free throw line a lot," said Bost. State was 14-of-20 at their straight stripe. Out at the arcing one, guard Ravern Johnson came off the bench to hit three treys and score 16 points, while Benock had a pair of longballs—both in the decisive run—and eight total markers.
Rebel guard Chris Warren managed 13 points with one of his team's four treys, but was hounded by Dog defense all afternoon into 4-of-14 shooting. Forward Terrance Henry had 13 points and eight rebounds, and guard Zach Graham 12 points. Ole Miss managed just 34% accuracy overall and was a miserable 4-of-24 at the arc, but had to keep putting up long attempts as the interior was usually sealed off to easy approach.
It took 11 seconds for State's strategy to show as an entry pass to Sidney produced the first Rebel foul, and free throws. Each Bulldog series over the first four minutes began with a post player getting at least one touch, at least until a Rebel turnover set up Bost for an open three. It wasn't a flawless tactic at first. "I thought Sid again too much in that no mans land," Stansbury said as the center tried "six to eight foot stuff" instead of powering closer.
So when Ole Miss made some early outside shots, just like as they'd done in Oxford, it was good for a 17-12 lead. The Rebels maintained some sort of margin the next seven minutes despite missing some open chances. It took longballs by Johnson and guard Jalen Steele to steady the offense down, then Rebel turnovers that could be converted into quick-strike layups. The Bulldogs pushed ahead 33-26 and might have grabbed control had not UM's Trevor Gaskins stopped this run with a threeball. Warren sparked a comeback with five points and had two more easy ones in front after a half-court pick, before Bulldog Brian Bryant made a brilliant block-from-behind of his layup to maintain a 33-33 halftime deadlock.
Both squads resumed play with aim off and at 15:00 minutes it was still tied, 39-39 this time. The Rebels had possession for the lead, too, and Graham fumbled it away. That was their last such chance.
Because Johnson floated out to the arc and broke the tie with his trey. It was Benock following suit as the lead expanded to double-digits on his pair of threefers and free throws for a 54-41 margin. "A lot of my stuff came off penetration, Dee got me a good look in the corner and Ray found me on a good pass and stuff." All of Benock's points came in this game-changing stretch.
Meanwhile Bost or Briant were making life miserable for Warren, beating the screens that had gotten in their first-half way. Bost was also playing on a hurting hamstring injured at Kentucky, on top of the previous Achilles issue. But he was still able to operate the offense in the decisive period.
"The first half I was still trying to get adjusted to the ball screens, the second half I was just reading it and finding Ray and Riley and Kodi." Oh, and Sidney, who was nigh-unstoppable midway of the second half either scoring on his own initiative or putting in teammate's misses. The only remaining Rebel run came when he sat down for a breather, with Henry and Reginald Buckner getting their team within eight points. Sidney stemmed that comeback with a power layup and for good measure stuck a three to beat the shot clock.
Naturally it was Sidney accounting for the game-longest margin, 71-54 at 1:47 with his last layup. To be playing that hard and well so late was worth his coach's comment. "I thought the second half he pushed through a little bit, through some fatigue, and made some plays," Stansbury said.
Sidney was not made available for interviews, though he did appear with Stansbury on the SEC Network on the court for the broadcast. This provoked some heated words from both sides in the media room since the game's standout was naturally requested. Stansbury considered allowing Sidney to talk on-record for the first time since the notorious Hawaii trip incident, but MSU's administration said no.
"He's been shot full of holes, me and him both," Stansbury said, referring to critiques of center and club alike this SEC season. As for future access, "We'll see if he does (interviews) before the year's over," Stansbury offered. "He doesn't want to talk number one, and number two he doesn't need to talk. He's not going to win the war in here. He just needs to keep playing between those lines."
Had Sidney, and the rest of this squad, played more games of this sort before then the Bulldogs would not be hanging all NCAA dreams on another run through the SEC's tournament. Still this performance showed promise of what the club can accomplish down the regular season stretch, which includes another must-win when the Dogs rematch with Arkansas on March 2. State had won four-straight in a SEC tourney before but the makeup of this squad, especially Sidney's conditioning, makes a three-day run much more promising.
So, "Tournament time, we're probably going to need that bye," said Bost. Not to mention more of what the Dogs did today against a rival, which they scored a fifth-straight win over. As Bost added, "Whenever we get Renardo running and attacking like that, we're a hard team to beat."