The Bulldogs fell back to 11-9 overall and 2-5 SEC with a third-straight league defeat. It's only half-a-loss behind a couple other West rivals, in a Division where everybody is still under .500. Yet every lost chance to climb the standings becomes harder and harder to make up going into February's schedule.
"It's a lot of pressure," said Rhodes.
Rhodes put his own sort of pressure on the Rebels. The junior from Jackson gave the home team and crowd of 8,415 a show, scoring a game-best 24 points with seven rebounds. He hit 10 of 16 shots and at times threatened to take charge of events. After a few lower-key outings it was a complete turnaround.
"They were just looking for me," he said. "Coach really told them to look for me tonight. If I get the ball this is the results." Guard Jamont Gordon added 20 more points for State, with swingman Dietric Slater scoring 11 off the bench.
But the Rebels did the Dogs one big scorer-better, putting four in double-digits. And where Rhodes dominated the paint, Ole Miss owned the perimeter. The starting backcourt of Bam Doyne, Clarence Sanders, and Todd Abernathy shredded State for 23, 22, and 19 points. They combined for all nine Rebel three-pointers and shot a collective 21-of-38.
"Crazy," said Rhodes, helpless to do anything but watch the jumpers sail overhead and snap the net. "It's too frustrating for me as a player."
For a coach, too. "When they shoot the basketball like that I don't know if anybody in this league will beat them in here," Rick Stansbury said. "Their guards scored 64 points and made all the timely shots." Not to mention some fairly spectacular long shots, too, the kind Stansbury didn't mind seeing go airborne. "I told my guys I'll take responsibility for those from 30-feet, from 25-in are your responsibilities!"
As a team Ole Miss finished shooting 50% even and 9-of-19 at the arc; they had been hitting barely 30% on longballs in the previous six SEC games. They did this against the team that had been leading the league in field-goal and three-point defense. "And they came in making 63% free throws in SEC," Stansbury said. "They were 18-of-21." The Rebels even beat the Bulldogs on the boards by six at the end, with the second-half margin plus-ten for the home team. "That's a big factor," Stansbury said. Particularly when it was a four-point game and we get a miss.
That was at 6:40 of the last half, after the Dogs had scrambled back from a 10-point deficit with their best stretch of outside shooting in the evening. Gordon, Slater, and Reginald Delk all hit for threes, then Gordon slashed through the Rebel man-defense for a dunk and 68-64 score. It was as close as State would get.
Because bulky center Dwayne Curtis muscled into the paint for a layup, then Abernathy pulled a step inside the arc for a jumper that had Stansbury calling for time at 6:13. To no effect as Curtis crashed the boards for a key rebound that became a second-chance layup for Doyne. Sanders had the dagger with his bomb at 4:34 at 4:27, stretching the lead to 77-64.
The run ended at 13 unanswered points by the home team, with State failing to connect for four fatal minutes. By then they trailed 81-64 and were playing out the string for stats, though Rhodes only added a dunk to his total. It was his second 24-point performance at Tad Smith Coliseum, a place he enjoys performing at. "I had to make a statement," he said.
"I thought Charles and Jamont and Dietric battled," Stansbury said. "But you've got to have everybody clicking."
State opened in a zone defense, which seemed to throw the Rebels off plans as five of their first seven possessions ended with turnovers. But the two times they, or specifically Doyne, got off shots they were good for treys. On their end MSU got a couple of tough baskets from Rhodes with jumpers by Reginald Delk and a Slater trey for a 9-6 lead at the first break.
Ole Miss finally went inside for a Curtis bucket, which opened up the perimeter more with Abernathy and Doyne taking advantage for three-pointers. Sanders added his own trey at 11:43 for a 17-12 lead, as all the Dogs had to show in the stretch was a Rhodes free throw and Varnado dunk. Switching back to man-defense wasn't much help immediately either as the Rebels were a step quicker getting into positions and converting opportunities.
Rhodes got one to roll in and briefly cut the deficit to 21-18. At that point, Ole Miss made their first key surge, with Sanders setting the pace. He stuck a jumper to initiate a 11-1 streak, adding a well-guarded trey and tough turnaround on the baseline during the surge. By the time Stansbury decided to pause play his team was down 32-19 at 5:31.
The Dog deficit reached 14 on a rebound basket by Parnell. It took three Gordon free throws and a three-point play by Hansbrough to steady State down on offense, and changing back to zone to slow the home team. Rhodes worked harder for a pair of scores and MSU was within four before leaving the court down 40-34.
"We came back on them but they still stepped up and made big shots," Gordon said.
Rhodes began the second with one missed drive and a most unwise trey-try from the left wing. It hurt all the more when on the other end Sanders did strike for three. The 48-34 score brought a quick timeout from Stansbury. After that Rhodes picked better spots and shots, hitting a couple of tough jumpers, and when Gordon missed from long range the center boarded, scored, and was fouled for a three-point play.
State cut the lead to five, the Rebels went up again by ten, and back-and-forth things went until the Dogs hit the three-straight treys. The home team wasn't rattled, inside or out. "Curtis and Abernathy had about three or four plays each that hurt us," Stansbury said. "And we didn't shoot the ball particularly well at all." State was 46% for the night, 5-of-18 at the arc, and had only three second-chance points. And while three Dogs got double-digits, the other six who participated managed just 18 points between them.
"We had a chance," Rhodes said. "You have to give Ole Miss credit, they came out and played with intensity and came out with the W."