"We can't be thinking we can afford to lose this," senior Charles Rhodes said. "We can't afford to lose any." Nor could Ole Miss, which snapped a four-game league losing skid. The Rebels improved to 18-7, 4-7 SEC, and revived their own hopes for the post-season.
"Give them credit, they were the best team tonight and showed a lot of toughness," said Rhodes. "Because this was a must-win situation for them, I knew they were going to bring their best shot against us because we're rivals."
The outcome meant the rivals once again split the season series with a home win apiece for the third-straight winter. "It kinds of puts some air back in us," said Rebel Coach Andy Kennedy, whose side had lost 88-68 in Starkville back on January 26.
"We knew coming in here we'd bet their best shot," said Stansbury. "And we got it." Not that the Rebels shot brilliantly, beyond the opening minutes when neither squad seemed capable of missing. But Ole Miss mustered 44% accuracy for the evening to State's 38%, made one more three-point basket, and played the Dogs even on the backboards. Actually, that stat mis-lead. It was stouter rebounding in the first 25 or so minutes that put the Rebels in superior position for the rest of the contest, and further proved the home team had come to play.
"They out-toughed us big-time on rebounds," said Rhodes. None more so than senior center Dwayne Curtis, who posted a double-double with 10 points and 16 rebounds. And, four assists which said much about OM's ability to work the ball in the last half. The biggest Reb had as many scoring passes as the smallest. But not as many markers; freshman point guard Chris Warren led all scorers with 22 points and a quartet of treys including the back-breaker at 1:19 of the game. Soph guard Eniel Polynice knocked out 14 more points in the winning cause.
State guard Jamont Gordon nearly mirrored his younger, smaller counterpart with 20 points and four longballs, though he wasn't nearly as accurate at 6-of-17 from the floor, 4-of-11 from the arc. After chasing Gordon around with Warren in Starkville, Kennedy put the 6-5 Polynice on him this time. Gordon said this shouldn't have made much difference. "I didn't shoot as good as usual." Nor did he get enough of those power-drives to the rim that are Gordon's trademark.
"Every time I got in the lane a little bit I had to pick up that dribble because it seemed a whole team was surrounding me. I'm used to getting to that hole and they didn't let me do that."
"You're never going to stop a guy like him," said Kennedy. "You have to do the best you can to contain him." Which save for spurts at the opening of the evening, and when the Dogs made their last run at a comeback, the Rebels succeeded in doing. They also found a way to shackle Rhodes after he'd punched in nine first-half points. The senior got only four shots with one make in the last period.
"I really don't know what it was," said Rhodes. "I started off and felt like I was going to have another game. Then the ball stopped coming to me, then they were disrupting and sending a lot of guys in. Andy Kennedy did a great job, that's all I can say." Though it was Kenny Williams, Curtis, or Jeremy Parnell doing the actual dirty work of keeping at least one body on the big Dog.
There was no pretense of defense in the first five minutes with amazing combined shooting of 14-of-19. This included five treys, with two each by Gordon and Warren. "That was probably a little fool's gold on both teams," said Stansbury. "They made as much as us to start that game." At the first media timeout the score stood 19-16 in State's favor. But something happened during the TV break as when play resumed there were six combined misses.
"It felt like everybody was hitting shots," said Rhodes, Then I guess everybody got a little fatigued and couldn't buy a shot, man.
Guard Barry Stewart's putback of his own miss still had State in front 23-16. But when Stansbury made his standard subs, this time with three fresh faces taking the court, the Rebels gradually rallied. A three-point play by Williams and Warren put-back put OM in front 25-24. The Dogs picked this bad time to go cold from the perimeter (they would miss the next nine long jumpers) and Ole Miss recovered most every rebound to produce transition baskets and a 31-25 lead.
"I thought (State) came out with great energy early," Kennedy said. "We weren't able to stop them but we were fortunate we were able to score. We started defending a little bit, we got some offense from our defense."
Going zone blunted the Rebel attack, though as Rhodes and center Jarvis Varnado combined for five points Ole Miss did the same. Two missed Ravern Johnson free throws kept the Dogs from catching up all the way, and a rebound bucket by Curtis with a buzzer-beating layup from Polynice gave the home team a 35-30 halftime margin.
"The first half the difference was on the backboards, they had a plus-nine margin," Stansbury said. "That's about toughness there." Which was something State players had prided themselves on up to now.
It didn't take long after intermission for things to get worse for the Bulldogs as Williams and Curtis powered for baskets, then Warren caught the defense flat-footed for consecutive scores and a 45-37 scoreboard four minutes into the period. Along the way Gordon took his poke in the eye and lost a contact, which did no good for his touch nor temperment. Though, one of his missed free throws was boarded and scored by sub-center Elgin Bailey for a 45-40 tally.
But the rookie center missed a layup and fighting with Williams for the rebound fouled, followed by a double-technical at 12:47. Two minutes later it was a 11-point deficit after Parnell free throws and a home-roll for Polynice, again coaxing a clock-stop by Stansbury. Not that he could fix his team's offensive issues easily, as the Bulldogs went six minutes with just a handful of free pitches to show. It took Stewart again chasing down his own missed shot for a follow to end the drought, with State still down 51-44.
Still long-misses by MSU and some aggressive play from Warren stretched it back to to a 11-point difference. But Gordon isn't All-SEC for no reason. He not only broke his perimeter drought with a typical trey, he threw in another 26-footer. And when guard Ben Hansbrough floated open in the right corner he was also able to connect, suddenly making it 61-57 with almost five minutes still to play out. The Rebs left the door ajar by tossing up a rushed threeball that missed.
"We closed the gap," Stansbury said. "We out-rebound them and that's what gave us a chance to stay in the game." Except Gordon couldn't get a roller to drop the right way, where OM's Curtis did on the quick entry-pass. State called time to set something up, which probably didn't involve fumbling the ball out of bounds. And on defense Varnado simply lost track of Curtis for an uncontested layup. The proverbial ‘dagger' came on a kickout to Warren that, instead of trying to run block, he fired for three and a 13-point cushion.
"We kept shooting and kept fighting to try to pull out one," Gordon said. "We just came up short."
Stewart scored 11 Bulldogs points and Hansbrough eight, but the bench this time just provided five points and rebounds alike as Stansbury didn't use the backups as much in the second period. And Rhodes simply didn't have the opportunities to repeat his first-half efforts. "He may not have touched it as much in that stretch," said Stansbury. "And in the second half he missed some of those jumpshots." Of course Rhodes only took a couple of those in the last 20 clock-minutes.
And contrary to their recent encouraging trend, the Bulldogs went sour at the stripe with 11-of-21 results. That was eight more attempts than the home team got, though Ole Miss was more efficient with their fewer chances. "The rim was crooked!" Gordon tried to joke. "Nah, we just didn't shoot well."
Or play well enough to leave Oxford with a win, something that would have done great good to State's SEC situation. Not to mention boosted their ratings in the NCAA picture. Now if nowhere near back to square-one, the Bulldogs have given away most of the margin built up in recent weeks. And there are still three road tests left, all at Eastern Division sites.
"We're at South Carolina next, that's all that matters," Stansbury said. "There's five games left and everybody knows it's a bear to win on the road. Our next game we have to find a way to keep pace. And find a way to win on the road."