Bulldogs Zone Out Rebels In 87-76 Victory

So what if the Bulldogs trailed by a dozen points in the first half? As point guard Gary Ervin dribbled away the waning seconds, his team securely ahead by double-digits and a host of MSU fans rattling the Smith Coliseum rafters, it was hard to remember that Mississippi State had to battle from behind to score their 87-76 victory over archrival Mississippi.

How the Dogs did it…now that was much easier to recall, as well as describe.

18th-ranked State used aggressive zone defense to shut down the Rebels on one end of the court, and a balanced offensive attack to shoot them down on the other, to extend a four-season stranglehold on this intrastate rivalry. The Bulldogs earned their seventh-consecutive victory in the series while running their current record to 14-2 overall and 2-0 SEC.

Host Mississippi dropped their second league game and fell to 9-6 overall. A crowd of 7,915 turned out for the afternoon game, and it appeared at least 1,500 of these came to cheer the visiting team. They were rewarded by continued Bulldog domination of the arch-rival, something Coach Rick Stansbury acknowledged.

"All of them count as one win and one loss," the coach noted, adding, "But this is one of those wins that is a little extra-sweet." Stansbury even called time with 39 seconds left, giving the Bulldogs a chance to salute their fans and vice-versa. All were in a mood to cheer.

"It's great to get that first SEC road win," said guard Dietric Slater. "Especially against Ole Miss."

For half of a half it looked as if the home team had a good shot at getting their first SEC win of any sort, as the Rebels reeled off nine quick points and built a 24-12 lead with over eleven minutes left to the break. Uncertain UM fans suddenly were howling in anticipation of upsetting their bigger in-state brothers.

The joy lasted about as long as it took for State to put together a 12-point run of their own, then seize a lead never relinquished. The Bulldogs roared into the dressing room with a 44-37 advantage and plenty of momentum for a successful second half. In the process this team reaffirmed it's reputation both as road warriors and Rebel rousers.

"Coach was telling us you don't want to be the team that breaks the trend," Slater said. "We didn't want to be the team to lose to Ole Miss." And they weren't.

"Our kids showed me something today," Stansbury said. "And it wasn't one individual effort, it was a whole team."

Even a team effort has leaders, and forward/center Lawrence Roberts set the pace inside with 23 points—11 of them on free throws. He was supported by starting center Marcus Campbell who came off a one-game suspension to hit all his five shots and score 11 points, and between them the biggest Dogs collected 13 of the team's 35 rebounds.

Yet there was balance on offense. Forward Ontario Harper and guard Jamall Edmondson came off the bench for 12 and nine points respectively and five treys between them. Ervin, though, was spectacular. The soph sparkplug had a career game at UM's expense, hitting a pair of longballs and scoring 15 points while handing out ten assists.

Just as importantly, veteran Ervin was a steadying influence in perimeter defense and kept things calm even as the Bulldogs fell behind far and fast. The point guard did not let his team get rattled. "A lot of guys had been here before, we knew what kind of game it was going to be," Ervin said.

"We knew they were going to come out and play hard regardless of their record," agreed Harper. "Everybody was going to play hard and leave it on the court."

The Bulldogs left the court winners because they played harder, longer. Mississippi opened with near-maniacal intensity, hitting shots and chasing down loose balls and disrupting State's halfcourt offense. "They took it to us early," said Roberts. "We had to weather the storm."

Indeed, conditions looked threatening when the Rebels turned a 13-10 lead into a double-digit margin. Most of MSU's offense came on three dunks as the Dogs missed longer shots, and Stansbury shuttled players in-and-out looking for an effective lineup. The rotation took a serious hit when starting wingman Winsome Frazier came down wrong and hurt his right foot, just below the ankle at 12:23. He did not return.

The deficit was still a dozen when Campbell rebounded, scored, and was fouled for a three-point play at 11:21. That sparked a ten-point Bulldog tear, with Ervin hitting an open three and then going end-to-end for a layup and 24-22 margin. State had also dropped into a zone defense after five minutes, something Stansbury had anticipated. "He told us this Ole Miss team was a better shooting team, so we had to play some zone to slow them down," Slater said.

"It was a gamble," admitted Ervin. "Like Coach said, the only thing to do was go out and contest shots and rebound." Fortunately the Rebel shooters weren't up to the challenge and missed a series of jumpshots from all over. Meanwhile Edmondson took over for Frazier and twice got alone in the right corner. Each time he stuck three-pointers, putting State in front for the first time and for good.

"I knew I had to come in and step up for the team, provide a spark," Edmondson said. "That's what I did."

Another trey, by Harper off the inbounds pass, made the lead 33-28. The Rebs cut it back to a point before Campbell banked one in and blocked a shot that Slater scored at the other end to force a UM timeout. The Bulldogs still maintained momentum, and the halftime lead, as Roberts kicked the ball out to Power for an open three-ball and 44-37 margin.

"We just had to keep our composure and we did a good job of that," Harper said. "We fought back, chipped away, and finally caught up with them."

The home team had some early second-half success getting the ball inside State's zone, but the Dogs managed to keep pace on their end until UM pulled within 52-49 on a Tommie Edddie layup. Roberts responded by going hard to the goal, then State took advantage of consecutive Reb turnovers to set up three-pointers for Edmondson and Harper, for a 60-49 lead. Even after the Rebels finally hit a second-half trey Stansbury stuck with the zone, and it worked better now with Roberts checking Eddie inside and UM guards forcing, and missing, longballs. A three-point play by backup center Walter Sharpe off Slater's bounce-feed stretched the lead to a dozen, 65-53. And when UM's Justin Johnson got a trey to fall Ervin instantly answered, which sent many home folk to the exits with eight minutes still to play.

It was just as well. The Rebs got no closer than eight points, three times. Ervin made a highlight-tape drive and flip for a three-point play and 78-67 margin at 4:25 to halt the only real threat of a UM comeback, and teammates cashed in enough free throws in the last two minutes to ice the outcome.

"I'm kind of surprised the score was as high as it was," noted Ervin, "because usually it's in the mid-60s." In fact this was first time in State's four recent victories in Oxford that the margin was over nine points. The Rebels shot 46% and Eddie, cleared to play only the evening before, was 6-of-7 from the floor in scoring 17 points. Three teammates were in double-digits.

But the Bulldogs shot 57% and while both teams had eight treys, State needed just 17 attempts to make theirs. Mississippi missed 22 of 30 attempts from the arc, and as the game wore on Rebel gunners took longer and longer to put the ball up. That played into State's plans to wear Eddie down, Roberts said. "We wanted to get into his legs, run up-and-down, and really take it up another notch on the defensive end."

"I thought we should have played in the zone from the beginning," Stansbury said. "It took them out of the game, it took their crowd out of the game. I told our guys they were going to make some shots but if we stayed in the zone we should be able to pull it out."

The Bulldogs indeed were in a zone, in every sense of the word, as they notched another ‘W' on their record at Rebel expense. Sure, they got off to a slower start than planned. But all was well because another one ended well for the road warriors of MSU.

"We kept our composure," said Roberts, "and I think we showed a lot."


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