"We went out and all played together, we all played hard," Steele said. "And add to that we had everybody into, coach was, the fans. Everybody was playing as one."
All-for-one, or all-out, or whatever all one wishes to call it, Mississippi State mustered the extreme effort needed to knock off the arch-rival Rebels in Humphrey Coliseum. The Bulldogs (8-13, 3-13 SEC) snapped a 13-loss streak in league play, but more to their point avenged a loss in Oxford. In the process they assured Ole Miss (21-8, 10-6) hasn't managed to sweep the series since 1998.
For Coach Rick Ray, being able to talk about a victory for the first time since January 9 was welcome relief. Watching his downtrodden Dogs dance off the home court, or in the case of guard Craig Sword jump into the student section in celebration, was even better.
"I told them I'm so happy for them because they went out and competed and showed what they can do as a basketball team," Ray said. "The second thing is being smart and responsible tonight, people want to celebrate a big win against Ole Miss! But we don't need any distractions."
Keeping under control Saturday evening might be a challenge. "It felt great," said Sword. "We hadn't won since the first of January, it felt good to win the first game in a while."
If the highest praise is that of the rival, Coach Andy Kennedy had some strong statements on the winners. "We can point to the fact we missed shots and turned the ball over too much. I thought right from the jump Mississippi State played like a team fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives. I don't know how that happens, quite frankly, and we were lucky to even be in the game down the stretch."
Yet they were. After watching State turn a two-point game at 8:57 into as much as a 12-point cushion four minutes later, the Rebels still had a shot. They cut a 68-58 deficit into a 71-67 difference with 14 seconds left. Free throws by Bulldog forward Colin Borchert assured the comeback stopped there as Rebel gunner Marshall Henderson missed the last two of his 18 three-point attempts.
Borchert was the unexpected star of the afternoon. He scored 11 points in the first half, mostly on his trio of treys. When Ole Miss came out to the arc in the second period the big forward went closer and scored ten more markers for a team-leading 21 points.
"Coach tells me once you make a couple of threes they're going to be flying at you," Borchert said. "I listened to the coach and I used it." Center Gavin Ware added an efficient 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting, while Steele and forward Rocquez Johnson had ten points apiece.
Even if the 6-of-21 outside accuracy wasn't much by most standards, it was still be the best perimeter work by the Bulldogs in weeks. A couple of those treys came during the key surge-ahead stretch as first guard Trivante Bloodman and then Steele struck from long range. "We finally made baskets," Borchert said.
Shooting proved more problematic for the Rebels at under 34% overall and 21% at the arc. This though also reflected the raw effort State showed on each end, because the Dogs were on the defensive. On Henderson most obviously. They could not stop him from firing, with 18 of his 19 attempts taken from the arc. But led by Steele with others taking turns or switching-off, State hounded Henderson mercilessly into a 4-of-19 night.
"If he came off screens we switched, kept our hands up on shots," Steele said. "Obviously it worked this game, he didn't make too many shots." Henderson finished with 16 points all the same, five on free throws. Forward Murphy Holloway did more damage inside with 22 points and 19 rebounds. Even this didn't break State down badly though, not least because looser officiating played to their favor against the bigger and deeper Ole Miss front line. State avoided the first half foul trouble that dug them into a first-half hole at Oxford.
Such wasn't this case. Even as the Rebels scored the first five points State showed poise and kept playing. Longballs by Steele and Borchert were key to the calm, as were seven first-half points from Johnson in his return from three-game suspension. His 23 minutes kept some strain off Ware and Borchert, allowed a larger defensive matchup around the baseline, and offered some impromptu points Ole Miss wasn't prepared for.
State wasn't efficient exactly in the first half but energy did produce a 34-30 intermission lead. It was 45-36 after a couple of Borchert buckets on the drive, with the Rebels calling for time. The break must have broke Bulldog momentum because the home team did not score again until 9:06, a six-minute span that could have and even should have been fatal.
It wasn't, because even when the offense vanished the defensive effort stayed and perhaps intensified. Ole Miss could only get within a basket in this stretch, with six misses and two turnovers. Steele ended State's drought with free throws off a Reginald Buckner technical foul, and at 7:35 Bloodman stuck his surprise threeball. By 5:12 it was a 61-49 MSU margin. If not for Holloway stealing and Henderson finally hitting it might have been over much earlier.
For that matter Ole Miss could have completed a comeback by making all their free throws. Holloway couldn't complete a three-point play at 46.8 though, and free throws by Steele and guard Fred Thomas maintained just enough margin to assure success.
And, allow a long-sought celebration to a team short on, well, everything this season. "I also found out it means a lot to Pres. Keenum," Ray said as the big boss stopped by the locker room to thank coach and club. "But I was tired of coming up here talking about a loss after every home game. I wanted to come in and actually be happy. Now maybe I can go and have dinner tonight and not be nervous."
All the anxiety boarded the Rebel bus, after a body blow to their post-season situation. Kennedy's comment about State playing like the NCAA Tournament aspirant was certainly telling on that point. The Dogs knew, of course. "Coach told us we had a chance to hurt their NCAA Tournament chances," Steele said. "I said, yeah! We're fighting just for what we've got this season."
What Mississippi State got was a moment of the old feel-good on hardwood, at the expense of their favorite victim. It was the 140th Bulldog victory in the series which MSU continues to lead 140-107. Of course their post-season consists solely of a trip to the SEC Tournament…but tonight they have something to honestly enjoy.
"It's a big boost," Steele said. "So we're going to finish the next two games, hope we come out with a win, and take that into the tournament."
State is at South Carolina this Wednesday for a 6:00 game, then finishes the regular schedule Saturday against Auburn.