Fast Start Fades As Dogs Fall To Rebs 67-63

The stage certainly seemed set for the home side; a near-record crowd, a quick double-digit lead, and a rival apparently on the ropes. But maybe the Bulldogs began taking their bows just a bit too early.

Ole Miss survived a fast first-half flurry of Bulldog baskets and a deficit that reached 13 points ten minutes after tipoff, and came all the way back and more for a 67-63 victory. The outcome left most of the five-figure Humphrey Coliseum crowd deflated, and the Dogs themselves simply stunned at how this one could have gotten away.

"We thought we had a lot of momentum," said MSU guard Ravern Johnson. "We came out everybody knocking down shots, everybody into it. But I guess as the game progressed we got out of synch."

Their win capped a huge week for the Rebels (12-9, 3-4 SEC), who Tuesday night handed overall league leader Kentucky their first SEC setback. Saturday afternoon, they knocked off Western Division co-leader State (14-7, 4-2). They also celebrated the first Rebel win in Starkville since 1998.

"Give Ole Miss credit," Bulldog Coach Rick Stansbury said. "They played better than we did and deserved to win the game. They made plays when they had to."

Plays at each end, too. But what mattered more than any particular execution was the way the Rebels shrugged off their first ‘quarter' situation, kept playing and ultimately played better than the home team in almost every aspect of the afternoon. Ole Miss out-shot State 41% to 32%, made just as many three-point goals as a Dog team that lives by the longball, and built a telling 42-33 margin in rebounds with more of both offensive and defensive boards.

"Today obviously was a huge step forward as it relates the psyche of our group," said UM Coach Andy Kennedy after his first success in Humphrey Coliseum. "Which tells me this team is starting to get it."

What the Rebels also got was double-digit offense from four starters and just enough points—as well as a lot of critical caroms—from the three backups that saw action. Guard Terrico White was the key figure, not just for his team-high 18 points and four three-pointers but the timing of his shots and scores as well. When Ole Miss had to have an offensive play in the last half, White was their first option.

"Big time player," said Kennedy. "He's becoming much more comfortable in the role we're putting him in." By the same token it was backcourt partners David Huertas and Zach Graham who kept the Rebels from being blown out early, taking and making a series of perimeter shots that stemmed Mississippi State momentum. Huertas finished with 16 points, a longball less than his season average, while Graham had 13 points. Big forward Malcolm White added 11 points and contributed to tense interior defense that hampered State center Jarvis Varnado at ever step in and out of the lane.

Varnado only got off five shots all day, and needed four free throws just to reach eight total points; well under his 13.4 average. "They did a good job, but I've got to be a better player," the junior pivot said. And while Varnado did grab a game-best 15 rebounds, the NCAA's leading shot blocker only got a hand on one such ball as Ole Miss did just as good a job staying at a safe distance.

The Rebels also used White and DeAundre Cranston on Varnado in relays, wearing him down by constant contact in the paint. Stansbury would have preferred to rest his starting center more than seven minutes, but both backups—senior Brian Johnson and soph Elgin Bailey—were under suspension this game for an curfew violation according to the coach.

For a while none of this mattered because other Dogs were ripping the nets from long range, led by Ravern Johnson. The wingman ended up with a game-high 20 points, a dozen of those on made-treys. Point guard Dee Bost added 13 points and guard Barry Stewart 10, each hitting a pair of long shots. But State was just 9-of-31 at the arc this time, though admittedly several of those were late forces, and more to the point the shooting chilled badly after a torrid opening.

"We quit making shots," Stansbury said. "That's kind of the way it goes in the game. We made some shots early." Particularly Johnson, who reprised his fast start of a week ago at Georgia by pouring in the first half points only to disappear most the second as the Rebels adjusted.

Initially it looked like they wouldn't have time to do so as State was up 5-0 before the visitors could take a shot, and 12-2 just four minutes-in. The Rebels missed their first six attempts (two were blocked) while all five starting Dogs got a basket in that opening burst. Even when Ole Miss was finally able to take, and make, some better shots, a Bulldog had the right answer. Rather Johnson did, twice offsetting treys—by Huertas and Graham—with bombs of his own. Another Stewart longball had State in front 25-12.

Yes, State was shooting quickly and not working the ball around. "But we had open looks and we've got good shooters," Johnson said. "We didn't turn down an open look."

"I wasn't concerned," Kennedy claimed later. "We've been in big holes before."

It was the Whites who slowed the assault with consecutive three-point plays; a trey from Terrico and a hook-and-foul by Malcolm. This ignited a real Rebel run, as Cranston got an unlikely longball to fall. Ole Miss used screens and movement to draw Varnado out of the lane, leaving room for drives and putbacks. So when T.White was left alone out front he delivered the three-pointer for Ole Miss' first lead, 28-27 at 5:16.

"And we kind of rushed things too much," Bost said. "We should have settled down."

Stansbury knew an opportunity to settle this one early had been lost. "I just thought we were kind of out-of-synch form that point on. We started subbing and guys did some things on the fly. Again I make no excuses, but we just weren't the same with that bench today in any way." Still five lead-swaps later with MSU up a point Johnson hit over the UM zone for a 37-33 halftime lead.

Thrice Ole Miss was able to draw within one, and twice State answered. Then Huertas worked himself open for consecutive threefers, and Graham added a shorter jumper that abruptly had the Rebels in front 48-44 at 13:24. "Huertas hit some big shots," said Varnado who was frustrated working for the ball as teammates weren't delivering and the jumpers weren't dropping.

"They packed it and made sure they cut off our driving lanes, and collapsed on Jarvis so we couldn't get him the ball," Bost said. Only Huertas' cool-down saved State from falling behind farther than six points by the eight-minute mark.

Then the seven, as T.White hit a tough shot with Bost right in his face for a 56-50 difference. Finally the ball was sent in to Varnado and while he didn't make baskets he did chip in three free throws. So did Bost at 4:51, keeping the Dog deficit within a trey.

It was 58-55 favor of Ole Miss after Bost charity chips when UM's Graham lost the handle once, twice, and a third time…yet managed to recover each bobble and bat it over to T.White. For whatever reason the defense dropped off and White hit from the right corner. After Stewart hurried a long shot that missed, M.White worked for a jumper. A Murphy Holloway free shot had the Rebels in front 64-55 as the clock wound inside three minutes.

Bost hacked a trio off the difference and while State didn't take advantage of Reb turnovers as the next three trey-tries went awry they were still within 64-60 after Stewart free shot. And full-court pressure produced another UM giveaway. Bost was able to draw a foul at 18.1 ticks and convert both for a one-shot game as Stansbury called for a talk.

Ole Miss got it in safely to Huertas for one foul, then to Cranston for another and #7 on the team. It was a good percentage play and the UM center made one, missed one. But instead of letting Bost set up a tying trey Huertas cleverly fouled Bost and he only made one chance. Huertas drew the fast foul in-turn but he was good on both for the two-score lead with 9.9 seconds showing.

And that was how it ended as Riley Benock, then Turner each missed from the right wing, adding to the total of errant trey-tries. Gambling on a zone most of the last three quarters had paid off handsomely for Ole Miss, though it wasn't a static set either. "The second half they started stretching the zone more to me," Johnson related. "They limited my shots in the second half."

Stansbury wished after-the-fact the whole team had been slower on the perimeter trigger. "We were 3-of-16 the second half, which tells you we shot too many thee-pointers. We needed to get the ball inside some."

And get to ball inside as well. This was the tenth game out of their last twelve the Dogs were beaten on the boards, and while the Rebels started three guards all stand 6-5. "They won the war, us playing small and them playing big," said Stansbury.

"If they were going to play four guards we had to have an advantage there," agreed Kennedy.

For their part the Bulldogs gave away a big chunk of home-court advantage in SEC-record terms, falling a half-game behind LSU in the official West standings (the 4-1 Tigers tipped off at home against Arkansas at 4:00). Now State has a shorter turnaround than usual before going on the road East, travelling to Kentucky for a Tuesday night (6:00ct, Raycom) contest.

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