Host Mississippi played hard enough and well enough to defeat the Bulldogs 75-65 in Oxford before a near-capacity crowd of 8,581. The Rebels remained on top of the SEC Western Division with their third conference win in as many outings, and improved to 13-3 overall. State lost their second road game of the week and fell to 1-2 SEC, 11-5 overall.
More disappointing for State, though, was having a eight-game winning streak over the Rebels ended regardless of site. Even young Bulldogs who had played no part in winning their last three contests in Oxford felt the sting from a snapped string.
"It was very frustrating because we wanted to come back and win this game," freshman guard Jamont Gordon said.
The Bulldogs did have some comeback chances, the last and best after chopping a 14-point Rebel lead into a 66-60 score at 4:30. If the home team was going to fold under pressure this was the time. "We all thought that," said Slater, who'd seen it happen in-person twice before. "But every time we tried to cut it close they'd find a way."
Mississippi found a way at each end to cancel any comebacks. After a strong layup from State forward Charles Rhodes pulled it within six, the Rebel defense either stopped—or watched the Dogs self-stop—on six consecutive scoreless possessions. On offense, the Rebs went to their big and little guns and both came through in the clutch. Guard Todd Abernathy drove in behind a screen by 300-pound center Dwayne Curtis for an uncontested layup at 3:00, and with 1:26 left Curtis took Abernathy's dump-off pass for a layup and 70-60 lead that effectively decided the outcome.
"It was like Ole Miss was too much for us today," said Rhodes. "We'd try to come back and they'd answer."
"They played awful well and deserved to win the game," said MSU Coach Rick Stansbury, who lost to the in-state rival for the first time since January 2002. "They're a good team, you don't start off 3-0 in league play without being good."
Abernathy finished with a team-best 22 points, a dozen of that on three-point goals, and five assists while Curtis muscled in 17 more points with eight rebounds in the win. Rhodes led State with a game-high 24 points while Gordon added 11 with nine rebounds and nine assists, playing his second game at point guard. Neither could take much satisfaction from their own stats.
"Because it seemed I gave up 20-something points myself," said Rhodes. "I just didn't defend well, I blame this game on myself tonight." That was a harsh self-assessment, because no Bulldog seemed to be playing much defense this day. And their board-work was even worse, by State standards. It was bad enough getting matched 33-33 in total rebounds, but worse was what Ole Miss did with a half-dozen of those caroms on the offensive end.
"They got a whole lot of putbacks," Gordon said. It wasn't a coincidence that the final 10-point margin was the same as the 18-8 difference in second-chance points favoring the Rebels.
"The one thing that stands out is offensive putbacks," Stansbury said. "The got way too many for us to be successful today." Five of Curtis' eight boards were on the scoring end and too often those putbacks negated the times State did force a miss. "It was frustrating to hold a team and force a bad shot, only to see them get an easy putback," the coach noted.
"They were great on offensive rebounds and were scoring them," said Slater. "We did terrible rebounding, and it kind of slowed transition down." In fact State scored zero points on fastbreaks, not that there were that many opportunities to run in the first place as the Rebels raced back into defensive position.
State had just one lead all day, that after Rhodes scored the game's first basket. After that the Dogs went five series without creating a decent shot, adding just a couple of Rhodes free throws for the next four minutes. Meanwhile the Rebels settled for shooting over the Bulldog zone with Sanders, Abernathy, and Patterson all draining treys to take a 10-4 lead. "They kept setting little ball-screens and getting the wide open shot and knocking it down," Gordon said.
So the Dogs tried the same offense and got threes from Slater and Reginald Delk to even the score by 15:20. But the home team was only catching its breath, and reeled off a dozen unanswered points to take control of the half. The Rebels sliced up State's zone with fast passing, creating backdoor layins for Curtis or more open long shots. When Curtis converted a rebound it was 22-10, and the margin would reach 28-13 by 9:45.
With no offensive cohesion to speak off all the Bulldogs could do was force the tempo more. That produced two buckets each by Rhodes and Gordon before State put up some rushed long shots that missed and broke the modest momentum. With the score 32-26 guard Bam Doyne stopped the UM bleeding with a driving layup, and the Bulldogs got no closer than eight the rest of the half. Fittingly it was Curtis catching a way-short missed jumper and scoring it that set a 44-33 intermission score.
"Everything went right for them today," shrugged Slater. Exactly, because even when the Dogs got aggressive baskets to begin the next half Abernathy was twice able to use ball-screens, spot up on the left wing and hit open threes for a 50-37 lead. State hacked that deficit down to 52-46, earning a Rebel timeout. ""It looked like the momentum was coming our way," said Stansbury. But the frenetic pace meant substitutions for tired legs and the revamped lineup let forward Jeremy Parnell get free inside twice for four points.
It was a 60-46 score when State finally put together a real run, outscoring the Rebels 12-4 as five Dogs got points in the surge. "It was kind of difficult because we had to learn how to play over Ole Miss' defense," Rhode said. "But we found a way." But they didn't find a way to get any closer than six, while the Rebels kept their poise and the lead when it mattered.
Stansbury said the last ten minutes saw State failing to defend Mississippi's ball-screening correctly, and fatigue played a part—particularly in Gordon's case as the usual small-forward put in 34 minutes on the point. "I was pretty tired chasing that point guard around all game!" Gordon admitted. The Rebels also made a clever offensive move, forcing the 6-8 Rhodes to chase a guard around and leave even more room for Curtis to get to the goal. As a result Rhodes had just five rebounds himself.
The final stats weren't drastically different in many aspects, as State actually was a tiny bit better in shooting and had one more free throw. But the Rebel margins in both putback baskets and points off the 17 Bulldog turnovers added up to their streak-breaking win. Now State returns home to face a LSU team featuring an even bigger board-bruiser and better scoring backcourt. With a gimpy couple of guards, senior Jamall Edmondson and freshman Richard Delk, both getting minutes off the bench, and forward Walter Sharpe now back in good graces for a week, the roster is closer to full-strength than any point this season.
And, the team has just received a painful reality-check with consecutive losses at Florida and Mississippi. It could make for an interesting early week of practices said Slater. "I think after this game coach is going to realize he needs to make some changes in certain places and certain things. Before we play LSU everything will be situated by that time."