A packed Hump, too, with actual attendance of 10,421 exceeding the paid tally because gates were opened at tipoff for a few hundred students unable to get tickets during the week. Most came anticipating a classic sort of contest pitting the SEC's top scoring offense against the best defensive lineup in the league. The Bulldogs didn't disappoint on defense, holding the Rebels a dozen points under their SEC-game average and to 37% shooting.
But on the other end State belied their own statistics, bombarding Ole Miss with their best all-around offensive outing in months. The Dogs shot 57% from the floor all evening with a startling 20-of-29 accuracy in the second half. They even shot the same percentage from the three-point line as the Rebs did overall, essentially beating the rivals at their own preferred style of play.
"Our defense turned into offense," guard Jamont Gordon said. "We put it in transition and made the extra pass and knocked down shots. It was just a good offensive game for us."
A great one for Rhodes, who for two years has been an unrivaled Rebel-rouser. In the last two seasons the Jackson native had averaged 20-points even in four games with Ole Miss, a fact well-publicized during the week's lead-up to this showdown in Starkville. "I told y'all a couple of days before you know what I average against these guys," Rhodes said. "I guess y'all put it in the paper, they (OM players) had some words to say when I came out.
"They said you're going to have to back up what you said in the paper. I'm the wrong guy to get irritated, I had to give them the same thing I've been giving them for years." Rhodes did that and more, topping the 25-point output he had in Oxford as a sophomore.
"Charles Rhodes told us what he was going to do and he did it," Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said. "Give him credit, he made a lot of tough shots."
In fact only three of the dozen shots Rhodes made, out of 14 attempts, were simple stuffs. The rest came on a variety of aggressive drives at or clever moves around the basket against a Rebel frontcourt unable to respond. That was largely because of fast foul troubles for big men Dwayne Curtis and Kenny Williams in the first half; then in the last period to Ole Miss spreading their defense and leaving freshman Malcolm White trying to handle the old Dog.
"And I just took advantage of it," said Rhodes, who took over the game with 18 second-half points. "That second half he got a lot of touches, we made a conscious effort to get the ball to him," MSU Coach Rick Stansbury said.
Four Dogs joined Rhodes in double-digits though only Gordon got as much as half that contribution, making a pair of treys for 13 total markers. Center Jarvis Varnado and guard Barry Stewart had a dozen points apiece, as did guard Riley Benock off the bench. Varnado had his own imprint on the evening and stat sheet with a team-best eight rebounds and four of the eight Bulldog blocked shots.
Curtis battled through foul issues to top the Rebels with 18 points and got to a game-best 11 rebounds. Williams wasn't so effective with just one basket and three boards in 19 frustrating minutes, leaving the backcourt to pick up the slack. Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice tried with 15 and 14 points, but they had to put up 33 shots and made only a dozen between them. Warren in particular struggled, going 5-of-20 from the field and missing eight of his ten three-point attempts.
Which was what Mississippi State ambitiously game-planned for against the best rookie guard in the league. The 6-4, 230-pound Gordon was told to harass the 5-10, 170-pound Warren and did it well. Rather, Stansbury clarified, "He wanted that challenge." State took the risk of letting their big point guard chase a quicker counterpart around and it worked. "You can see who got the best of who," said Stansbury. "Warren never got in the flow, that's a big key to their team."
"I thought Gordon did a great job," Kennedy said. "I thought his size and strength bothered Chris." On both ends of the floor, too. And despite their superior stats and preference for playing up-tempo, the Rebels were simply out-run more often than not by the supposedly slower Dog team. Gordon doubled Warren in assists, six to three, and while the matchup kept him away from the goal Rhodes, Varnado, and bench big men were able to take care of the glass-work.
"It was just a big team effort, everybody played good from the bench to the starters," Rhodes said.
From the first three-pointer sunk by Gordon the Bulldogs made it clear they were not going to settle for a static style of play. The cause was helped as by 17:25 Williams already had two fouls, though his replacement White would do more offensive good for a half. When Rhodes announced himself with consecutive buckets State led 11-6.
Polynice answered with six quick points of his own for a 14-13 Rebel lead, at which point Curtis got his second foul. Varnado seized the opportunity at each end. His free throws broke a 21-21 tie, then after blocking a Reb shot he rattled in two open jumpers. After missing four shots Warren got a long ball to fall and White worked for a classic three-point play to make it a three-point difference. Surprisingly it was backup center Elgin Bailey getting four points and Stewart slipping free for a layup that made the halftime scoreboard 38-31. Only White's nine points were keeping the Rebels competitive.
It was 40-32 when Curtis, chasing a rebound, went over a Bulldog back for #3. With his bulk on the bench Rhodes was free to go right at the goal for another pair of buckets and a 44-34 difference at 17:10. Even as Warren warmed up State was able to maintain a reasonable margin. Stretch it some, too, as when Gordon's hanging layup fell as he was fouled for three-point play. He followed by going end-to-end for a dunk, 55-42 score, and Rebel timeout at 13:11.
It didn't help, even though Ole Miss was finally able to attack the goal by going into Varnado for a few points off Curtis free throws. Rhodes and Bailey more than matched those, and Brian Johnson sucked in coverage so Benock was left unguarded for a threeball. The freshman guard did it again at 9:09 for a 69-52 margin.
"Any time you've got a dominant force inside like Charles having a big game like he did tonight it's going to open up a lot of outside shots," Benock said. "I had some good looks and just had to do what I did."
Curtis did all he could to keep it a contest with some tough putbacks and even a short jumper after Varnado blocked his layup. But as the Rebels stretched their defense hoping to force MSU mistakes the Bulldog guards kept control and got the ball to Rhodes for easy points. Lots of them, including a pair of dunks that again had Ole Miss stopping play…and watching Rhodes jog around waving to the student section.
Which was good timing as at 2:53 he was subbed-out of his last home game against the rivals. The rest of the starters soon enough joined him, though Benock's last triple stretched the lead to 22 points in the final minute.
"That's the most fun we've had this season," said Gordon. "That was a good game right there." Better than good to Stansbury who agreed it was State's best effort of the year. "Because we beat one of the better teams in the country. And we didn't just beat them." Indeed the Dogs held Ole Miss to a season-low in points, edged a league-leader in rebounds by one board… "And on top of that we were very effective offensively. We had some great individual efforts, Charles did what we needed him to do, Jamont was very efficient, guys came off the bench and added-to. We didn't have to depend on the three-point shot even though we made some." Seven to be exact, compared to four longballs for a Rebel team that thrives on perimeter shooting.
Which means that a Mississippi State team which has been winning on defense and rebounding now has shown an offensive side to their game. "Our team has matured a lot, as you can tell," said Stewart. And while the Bulldogs have more room left to grow, they can't be in any better SEC position after five games than first in the Western Division and atop the overall standings. It's a heady position, something Stansbury isn't playing up…yet.
"Absolutely not. It's five games, it's a long season. We're 5-0, the only thing that matters is the next one. There are 16 games, when we get down to #16 I can answer it!"
And for Rhodes, there's the matter of a rematch on February 20 with the ballclub he loves most to beat. "I've been having a lot of success against those guys," the voluble and volatile senior said. "Williams said just get ready for Oxford, it's going to be a different thing. That's something he shouldn't do to me, but I'm just ready to get to Oxford."