…except for Frazier, who was streaking in and already timing his strides once he knew Nunnery would not try to hit a trailing teammate. "I said I'm going to wait ‘til you try to lay it up, then I'm going to go get it," Frazier related. And he did, going up behind Nunnery and slapping the layup away cleanly. "Nunnery was like I didn't know you could still jump! I said the injury ain't stopped me!"
The injury, of course, was the broken foot Frazier suffered January 8, not only in Oxford and against this same opponent but in an attempt to block a Rebel shot. The first-half hurt sidelined State's senior guard the rest of that Bulldog win and eight ensuing games. Thankfully Frazier wasn't having any flashback fears this time. "You don't think too much about it when it's going, and I wasn't too much worried about it."
Not only did Frazier get the swat, Roberts snared the rebound and after a timeout the guard got the shot—a three-pointer at 7:33 that completed what turned out to be the game's decisive momentum change. Because from then on the host Bulldogs gradually gained control and ultimately scored a 71-68 decision.
The victory, watched by a rabid and season-high crowd of 10,242 and a regional TV audience, was State's 20th of the campaign and improved the Dogs to 20-8 overall and 8-6 SEC. It was also MSU's eighth consecutive win in the series with Mississippi. The Rebels left 13-14 and 4-10 SEC.
They also left frustrated, having held more and longer leads than the home team and at several junctures seemed a play away from establishing some sort of grip on the game. But in that regard this was nothing more than a typical Bulldog-Rebel brawl: tense, hard-fought, and decided by isolated individual efforts more than total statistics.
Which was exactly what State's side expected. Never mind that the Bulldogs were playing to solidify their postseason status, while the Rebels are trying to stay out of the Western Division cellar.
"This was the Super Bowl for them," Frazier said. "It's a rivalry, you never know how a rival game is going to turn out." Then again, maybe the Dogs do know…or should given their four-year sweep of the series. But the home team was not assuming success this time, nor all that surprised when the visitors turned in perhaps their strongest performance of the month.
"Give ‘Ole Miss' a lot of credit," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "They had a week to prepare for us, Coach (Rod) Barnes has his team ready. They played tremendous, they shot and took care of the basketball and put themselves in position to win it."
That the Rebels did not win it wasn't due to their failures as much as to Dog-ged determination not to lose priceless points in SEC and NCAA opinions. And even after Frazier's clutch plays on each end there was still seven hard minutes for the game to be won, or lost. In fact it was not until 4:50 that State pulled even, 61-61 on a three-point play by guard Shane Power, and the lead would change sides of the scoreboard twice more (out of 18 total switches) before forward Ontario Harper scored on a feed from guard Jamall Edmondson and the Dogs were up, 65-64 and to stay.
The rest of their scoring came from the foul line, a weak point the previous four games but the best offensive tactic down the stretch. Roberts sank a pair at 1:49, and Kendrick Fox's trey-attempt to tie missed with State getting the out-of-bounds rebound call. Stansbury set up a play for Roberts, who drove right at Rebel center Tommie Eddie on the left baseline. The ensuing collision was called a block, fouling Eddie out and giving Roberts two more charity tosses to convert at 1:19 for a 69-64 lead.
"He was trying to stay in front," Roberts said, "I knew he had four fouls and was just being aggressive, make the referee make a call. I was happy about that one."
It wasn't entirely over as Harper needlessly fouled Brandon Patterson for two free throws at the minute-mark, and a turnover—State's 19th and last—gave the Rebels a chance to tie. Nunnery missed, Roberts rebounded to Edmondson for a foul and free throws at 16 seconds. But this is State-Ole Miss and there had to be one final dramatic twist, as after Roberts blocked a baseline shot Frazier fouled Marvin Moore on a made-layup at 1.6 ticks. The Reb forward intentionally missed his free throw and Harper smartly pushed it out of bounds as the horn sounded, preventing any other play.
"We knew we were going to get their best shots," said Stansbury, "and we did. We didn't play our best but there are games like that you have to survive."
Indeed, the Dogs were pushed to their late-season limits by an excellent Rebel effort. The visitors shot 49% overall and hit ten of 22 three-point attempts. They also put up a dozen more field goal tries than the home team, despite the fact that Mississippi State doubled them on the boards 38-19. Three Rebels scored in double-digits with guard Todd Abernathy getting 14 off the bench, Fox 13 points and Eddie ten before fouling out.
"The reason it stayed so close is we turned the ball over too many times," Stansbury said. "That let them hang around." And startling outside accuracy (seven of the threeballs came in the first half) let UM play from ahead much of the way. But the Rebels could not defend the Dogs at the charity stripe, where State made good on 23 of 25 attempts and did not miss a free shot in the entire second half.
"The difference was the free throw line," Stansbury said, "that's a huge statistic in a close basketball game. And the rebounds." The Bulldogs also were able to make defensive stops when it mattered most, with Roberts handling Eddie one-on-one and freeing teammates to prowl the perimeter and shut down Rebel longballs.
"That's the kind of battle we expected," said Roberts. "Hard-fought, a lot of fouls, real aggressive." The senior forward certainly did all in his powers, scoring a game-best 20 points and nearly matching the whole Rebel team with his 15 rebounds. Ten of his points came at the stripe and Roberts missed only one chance there despite playing 38 tiring minutes.
For his part Power played the entire game without a break, and in 40 minutes contributed 18 points with six more rebounds. He and Roberts were the only Dogs in double-digits…but this was not a game to be won by big performers. Every contribution mattered. "It was on our home floor," Power said. "We made some plays we needed to make, Lawrence hit some free throws and closed the game out for us."
Both sides opened this game aggressive on offense, finding openings for driving jumpers and layup-feeds. Power threw in the game's first longball and at the first media timeout the Bulldogs led 11-7. Things changed immediately after the break, though. With the shot clock running out Nunnery threw up a three that was swished, and next time down Abernathy drained a trey for a 13-11 lead.
With the Dogs unable to take care of the ball, recording ten first-half turnovers, and Mississippi bombing away at the arc, the scoreboard was tilting 34-24 the wrong way at 4:21. "I think we took their best hit," Power said, "I've never seen them make so many shots. Especially from the three-point line."
Another break in the action let Stansbury set his defense, with point guard Gary Ervin hounding the UM quarterback and interrupting their offense. A few UM mistakes became scoring opportunities and State cashed in, with Roberts scoring on a layup and a rebound for five fast points. The Dogs pulled within one on Roberts free throws and it took a rebound putback for the Rebels to carry a 41-38 lead into their locker room.
"Towards the end of the first half was when we got our confidence," Roberts said. This attitude wasn't shaken even as the Rebs answered every challenge and the lead changed ends minute-by-minute. And when Frazier came through with the big block and timely trey, the Bulldogs were on their way to continuing control of the rivalry.
"Year to year it's going to be the same thing," said Frazier, "it's a big game for them and for us." The senior should know, having scored a 8-1 career record against the rivals.
It was also a bigger win than usual as it put State at the presumably-important 20-win plateau, and assured them of no worse than breaking even for conference season. Stansbury, tossed early in State's home win last season, joked that this year "I stayed around to watch the whole game." But the coach was serious about the implications of this victory.
"Sometimes you just have to find a way to survive," Stansbury said.