"It's always great to be back home," said Coach Rick Stansbury, who has never lost to the Rebels in The Hump. "We were sure happy to be here and get a win at home."
A win keyed by contributions off the bench of two Dogs at opposite ends of experience in this rivalry. Senior swingman Dietric Slater subbed-in to score 16 points, including seven in a second-half stretch when his team took control. And in his first matchup with Mississippi freshman guard Barry Stewart scored a dozen more points, five on consecutive trips after the Rebels had pulled within a point and were bidding to snap State's home streak.
"The guards really stepped up tonight," said forward Charles Rhodes, who celebrated his own return to the starting lineup by scoring a team-best 17 points.
Those two non-starting guards picked the right time to step it up. The Bulldogs had led by as much as nine late in the first half and by 41-36 at intermission. But the Rebels, who took leads a half-dozen times in the opening period, quickly pulled back within a basket and for six minutes had repeated opportunities to tie or lead. All missed.
The last came with State clinging to a 53-52 margin and forward Trey Hampton open on the baseline for a layup. He rushed it and missed it. At the other end Stewart found himself with the ball and a high-post screen. A quick dribble to the right, a shot, and State had three more points. It was the rookie's only trey try of the night and it paid off.
"It was a big lift for us, we stretched the lead back to four and the crowd got behind us," Stewart said. So did his next chance, after Hampton cost UM a turnover with an illegal screen. Stewart was briefly open for a jumper but… "I saw a big guy and decided to drive and get the foul." His free throws gave the Dogs a five-point lead at 9:23, which was Slater's cue to take charge at each end. He rebounded misses by foes and teammates alike, converting them into free throws and some second-chance layups.
"That's my game," said Slater, playing in only his third game since coming off a semester's suspension. "They just stopped boxing me out for some reason and I just like I'm going to have a field day, I guess." He heaved in a ridiculous rebound-layup in traffic for a 62-52 score that had the Rebels calling time at 7:49. He added more free throws and more putbacks to stretch the lead out to 70-54 and cap a 17-2 Bulldog run that decided the game.
"That's just Dietric," starting guard Reginald Delk said. "He's going to take crazy shots and make some and miss some. He made them tonight." The 6-3 Slater also led everyone in rebounding with 12. Rhodes added eight boards as State held a 48-40 lead on the glass, and Delk rounded out the Dogs in double-digits with his 10 points.
"There was one common thread in that last 13-14 minutes, we played with great toughness," Stansbury said. "That started with Dietric, and Charles went to war." It was the kind of effort expected of Rhodes all year, except he had not been in the starting five since November 29. He lost his starting job with a wrist injury; he couldn't regain it due to lax practice efforts. But Stansbury knew the Jackson native was due to return to the tipoff team…and ready for another shot at the Rebels.
"Charles has done some things more consistently that we've asked, he played more consistently at. And this was a huge game for him. So we started him."
"I finally got back in the starting lineup and I fed off my teammates' energy," said Rhodes, who was told after the Tennessee game he would open this one. "And we went out and took care of business."
But this game didn't belong to the big bodies on either side. It was a backcourt war all the way and the Rebel guards took their best shots at winning it. For much of the evening they seemed quite capable of doing so as Todd Abernathy, Clarence Sanders, and Bam Doyne fired early and often from the arc. In the first half alone they attempted 20 treys and by the final horn Ole Miss had tried 32 longballs, making eleven. Abernathy was the evening's top gunner with 20 points and Sanders added 17, both making four treys. Doyne joined them in double-digits with 12 points.
"We came in worried about Dwayne Curtis," said Stansbury of the stout Rebel center. "But they were making threes." Such as consecutive long shots for a 8-7 lead after four minutes of action. Over the next ten minutes the lead would change sides a dozen times with six tied scores. Ole Miss' last lead came a tick inside 6:00 when Sanders stuck his open threeball for a 28-26 advantage.
In a hint of things to come it was Stewart who gave his team back the lead, getting fouled hard on a missed three and hitting a trio of free throws. Stansbury also chose this juncture to gamble on a zone, which worked very well as Ole Miss missed their next three long shots and had shorter attempts blocked or altered.
"We didn't come in planning on playing a lot of zone," he said, "they had three guys shooting 40% from the arc. But we had to change rhythm because they were making 3s against the man."
At the other end sub-center Vernon Goodridge tipped in a teammate's miss and passed off another rebound so Stewart could drive for a layup, and Richard Delk somehow got a ball up through three sets of arms under the goal for 36-28 lead. Sanders ended a two-minute drought with a jumper at 3:48.
The real back-breaker was a longer dry spell in the decisive half, with the Rebels getting only two points from 11:18 to 4:05 when Curtis got a layup to roll in. All that was left was to establish the final margin and pad some individual numbers. Curtis did net a double-double with ten rebounds. But the Rebels were overpowered in the paint, with ten shots blocked compared to just one Bulldog try swatted aside. State also had a 49% to 33% edge in overall shooting, which helped because Ole Miss got off 23 more attempts than the home team. Oddly, they still shot better from long range (34%) than in the paint, in no small part because of all the Bulldog blocking.
"Give Ole Miss a lot of credit, they came in and played extremely hard," Stansbury said. "And I thought they shot the cover off the basketball. I thought they made more than they made." State wasn't nearly so productive from the arc at 4-15. Nor was starting guard Jamont Gordon, who played just 20 minutes total with eight points on nine shots. "I thought we had some other guys playing well and Jamont wasn't at his best tonight," said Stansbury, who now has a 13-4 record against the in-state rival in his nine seasons.
"Games are going to have runs," said Stewart after his first win in the rivalry. "As the game went on I realized we were getting the momentum." Now, he and his teammates hope to maintain some of that momentum as they settle into the SEC schedule. "I think we're on a winning streak coming home."