He and team have to though. Ole Miss overcame a slow first half, and as energetic a game as the Bulldogs have played this season, to take a 71-65 victory at Humphrey Coliseum. With the sweep of the regular-season series, their first since 1998, the Rebels left 18-8, 9-4 SEC and with a valuable boost to their post-season status.
Mississippi State slipped a step farther from break-even at 12-14 and is 5-8 SEC. The loss was Coach Rick Ray’s first on the home court to Ole Miss in three tries.
Ray, who Monday had said no one wanted to go into summer after being swept in the rivalry, downplayed that aspect tonight. He didn’t diminish any other emotional aspect.
“It hurts,” Ray said. “Just the fact we played so well and did some things in spurts.”
The Bulldogs did do some things well enough to compete. To win even, despite losing starting forward Roquez Johnson early in the first half; and having to shuttle point guard I.J. Ready in or out with a bad ankle suffered a minute into the second half. Those disruptions ultimately added-up at both ends of the court.
It might not have mattered though, the way Rebel guard Stefan Moody stepped up his second half game. After a slow first period with six points, Moody just took over the next to score 23 more. He made six of his ten shots that half, all from the three-point arc. His best stretch came by no coincidence when Ole Miss was taking charge.
Not completely; the Bulldogs never let things get entirely out of hand. Still Moody’s big bombs and later free throws made the most difference. “I challenged (the team) in the huddle,” Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said. “And he was the only guy that responded. And he made three straight huge shots.”
“Moody got hot,” said guard Fred Thomas, charged with chasing the Rebel around the court and off well-executed screens. “It didn’t take us out of the game. But those shots, they were big.”
Big enough that no other Rebel scored more than eight points, nor needed to. Mississippi State got 19 points from Sword, 13 from center Gavin Ware, and 12 more from forward Travis Daniels. The obvious difference was State had to play more in the paint, especially after Johnson was lost and Ole Miss could more safely zone on younger, rawer forwards.
The Rebels for their part beat the Bulldogs zone with 29 trey-tries, a dozen of them good for just over half the total points. It wasn’t just the lopsided number of perimeter points that frustrated Ray. He looked at Ole Miss taking 60 shots total, to 48 for the home team.
“We didn’t rebound, and we didn’t follow the scouting report on one particular player,” Ray said.
For most of a half though State did stick to the script well enough. Even after Johnson stayed down on a foul, leaving with concussion symptoms, the Dogs worked it to Ware and Daniels on the baseline while Sword attacked everywhere. State didn’t even try a trey for five minutes and when Thomas did, it was good.
With Ole Miss staying near the rim Sword and Daniels both were left open outside and struck for threes, pushing the Bulldog lead out to 26-16. Over three minutes later the margin was the same because neither side had scored. When Ready sat down for a rest the offense collapsed, and Ole Miss used the reprieve to gradually get going.
An 8-0 run had them within a possession and while the Bulldogs still led 32-27 at the half a terrific opportunity to establish control had vanished. That lead came largely on the strength of a 24 to 11 rebounds edge, too. The great what-if? was how Johnson’s absence impacted…everything.
“I’m obviously not going to say that’s the reason we lost the game, that’s unfair to Ole Miss,” Ray said. “But we missed his rebounding, we missed his veteran leadership. But more import a guy who can sweep and make plays on the back end of that zone.”
Just 55 ticks into the new half more trouble hit as Ready rolled an ankle. He returned in two minutes but only after back-to-back bombs from Moody and Martavious Newby.
Suddenly it was Moody using baseline screens, buying space from Thomas, to bury treys. Two came in the ‘third quarter’, but it was his trifecta of treys that loomed larger as State kept within one point and one possession. Moody made good at the arc at 6:08, at 5:36, and finally 4:46 for a 61-57 lead. He only attempted one more shot all evening, missing it, but the damage was done.
Injuries and ails kept adding up for State, too. Ware had to go out after hurting his left wrist at 8:31. Ready would play a couple of series, then sit on the ankle. And Sword came up limping after a tough rebound. Despite lack of cohesion and lack of ball movement the Dogs still had a chance to come back after a Sword dunk at two minutes for a 63-61 margin.
But forward Sebastian Saiz got free for a clutch basket, and Thomas aimed more than shot his trey try for a tie. Ole Miss ran a set against a cobbled-together Dog lineup and produced a dunk at 0:50. State got no closer than two again and it was Moody hitting four free throws the rest of the way to settle things.
Thomas admitted that in a crucial second-half stretch, against the Rebel zone and with point guard play lacking, State settled too quickly for outside shots. “We could have got to the paint any time we wanted.” The Dogs were 5-of-19 at the arc. But they also had a slight edge in total rebounds, if not in the second half; and four blocked shot to zero for the visitors. State even shot it a bit better overall, 5=46% to 43%.
It didn’t matter with a disrupted offense and rotation for too many minutes…and one dead-eye Rebel gunner. “We contested all his shots,” Thomas said. “They just went in.”
“I’m just excited we’re able to come into a hostile environment and have a chance to finish the season sweep,” said Kennedy, who has won his last four games in the rivalry.
For the Bulldogs, who lost late in Oxford after another strong first half, missing on the rematch was tough to take. “We got out on them and knew it was going to be a fight,” Thomas said. “They were going to make a run, and they did. They got the last punch.”
Mississippi State has little time to recover. They are right back in Humphrey Coliseum in less than 48 hours, hosting Arkansas at 3:00 Saturday. “We haven’t had this turnaround yet,” Ray said. “So we have to rest our bodies but also get mentally prepared.” It can’t be easy judging by Bulldog words and faces.
”It’s very disheartening,” Thomas said. “But we’ll get over it, some kind of way, and get ready for Arkansas.”