"Obviously a great win for our guys," Ray said. "The biggest reason is not just we beat Ole Miss, we dealt with some adversity and found a way to win."
State evened the SEC record at 1-1 and at 11-4 has exceeded last season's win total already. The Bulldogs also extended their home-court streak in the series to five years with wins in 15 of the last 16 Rebel visits. A season-best crowd of 8,841 came to the contest and played their part in the proceedings.
"It was great," freshman guard I.J. Ready said. "I'd seen the pictures and didn't know how it would feel. But it was a different feeling."
Ole Miss (10-5, 1-1 SEC) left feeling differently as well. They were already playing at a disadvantage with leading scorer Marshall Henderson serving the second and last SEC-game suspension. The box score showed them making 10-of-12 free throws compared to 28-of-42 for homestanding State. "Obviously it's very difficult to win on the road anywhere," said Coach Andy Kennedy. "When your team is out-shot by 30 at the free throw line in a one-possession, game it's going to be difficult."
Lest accusations of home cooking fly, though, sending Mississippi State to the foul line was statistically a good idea. The Bulldogs have not been proficient at the stripe this season overall, and as Ray noted the players most likely to stand there are the worst of the regulars in free throwing. Such as guard Craig Sword, only 56% at the stripe in pre-SEC season.
But after making 9-of-10 in Wednesday's loss at Kentucky, the sophomore was 15-of-18 against the rival Rebels. In fact all his points came this way as he was 0-of-7 shooting for two or three. "I've been practicing a lot, shooting a lot of free throws. That's my bread and butter, going to the line."
The rest of his clubmates were only 13-of-24 on charity chances, so the game wasn't won—or lost—at the stripe per se. What the imbalance really reflected was differing offensive philosophy. Despite the absence of marksman Henderson the Rebels fired away from the arc 29 times and made ten, with three-each from Jarvis Summers, Derrick Millinghaus, and Ladarius White. This outside attack nearly worked well enough for a road win.
But the Bulldogs, despite limited roster-numbers, tried the other tack. Or attack. "Coach told us to attack the zone the whole game, and I saw it start opening up in the second half," Sword said. While Sword slashed from farther outside and drew fouls, Johnson began closer to the rim and used moves. It succeeded beyond Ray's expectations.
"He's not hard to gameplan for; keep him off the lane and make him drive right." But Ole Miss' frontcourt missed that memo and Johnson was able to go left, or middle, or even hit short baseline jumpers. The trick was being aggressive and not fouling, which sub-Johnson and starting center Gavin Ware managed better than usual.
"I noticed they came kind of soft at me," Johnson said. "And I'm a hard worker, I was going to find a wa to get a rebound, a tip-in, anything."
Early on though, the Bulldogs got caught-up trying to play the Rebels' game. When Millinghaus threw in a couple of left-corner treys State seemed to panic and began heaving longballs. Most missed, but a timeout settled the squad as Ray reminded what the gameplan was. Ironically, the Dogs didn't convert nearly enough of their early free throws to take charge. Further, it was forward Colin Borchert keeping his team afloat by hitting a pair from top-of-key and later adding another three of the wing.
The Bulldogs built as much as a nine-point lead in that first half. The Rebels cut it to three at half-a-minute left, then tried to press. It was beaten for a Johnson dunk and Ready was able to steal-and-score for a 43-36 halftime margin. State's advantage peaked at 47-36 early in the new period.
They still led 54-46 at 13:49, only to go frigid with seven-straight misses; most of them hasty jumpers. Ole Miss was far from finished and shot ahead by 10:55 on a trey by Anthony Perez. At one point rookie Ready called a team-only talk. "We huddled-up on our own and I said if we get a stop here and the rest of the game it will be a win. I think we turned it up on the defensive end, put pressure on the ball."
It worked as Ole Miss was 1-of-10 in a stretch of five-plus minutes. State wasn't shooting a lot better but was forcing misses; or just plain getting them as point-blank attempts by Rebels rimmed awry. After a couple of lead-swaps and a 72-72 tie, Sword went baseline to foul-out forward Aaron Jones and make one free throw.
Summers was the obvious choice to make the last-minute play and he tried, but rolling left-to-right he was trapped by guard Fred Thomas and Ware into travelling. Ready got the ball and a foul for two made freebies at 0:31.3. Down three Ole Miss wanted to set up Summers for a tying trey; he was too closely covered and again rolled across the front. His 14-footer was wide, Johnson got to the rebound and Borchert drew the foul for an icing free shot.
Ole Miss shot 38% overall with a game-best 23 points from Summers. White added 16 and Millinghaus 15. Except for some left-alone longballs in the first half though nothing came easy for the visitors. Even a 47-37 edge in rebounds wasn't maximized at either end.
"Our defensive pressure kind of messed them up," Ready said. "We originally were inside the three-point line, when we went outside we messed them up. And we stayed in our lanes and made sure we didn't get any uncontested layups."
Sword had his 15 free throws for the day. "We played a lot of zone and he's driving by us, driving by us," Kennedy said. Or stealing, with a career-high seven thefts. Borchert scored 14 with the three made-treys and Ready 10. Ware only scored six points but had nine rebounds and played smart against a series of taller but not as physical Rebels. Ray wasn't happy, but neither was he surprised by 4-of-21 outside shooting from his team. And while Thomas was 1-of-7 at the arc, he made up for misses on one end with sharp defense at the other.
Speaking of supporting acts, "I thought our crowd was tremendous," Ray said. "I've heard how a great an environment the Hump is but I'd yet to see that. That's the first time I came out and thought the crowd was phenomenal."