"That was a must win for us," senior G Barry Stewart said. "We knew our backs were against the wall and we stepped up."
They did indeed. After weeks of offensive frustration, mostly in the four road losses, State took advantage of the home court. The Dogs shot 49% even from the field, best since mid-December, and hit 33% at the arc with eight treys. That included sticking the first two open long-looks of the night which did a world of good for a team with shaky shooting confidence of late.
"They gave us a lot of open looks and we knocked down a lot of shots," said G Ravern Johnson, who led the State scoring parade with four treys and 18 points. Stewart added three threes of his own for a dozen points, while PG Dee Bost had a longball and 11 points. "Give us open looks long enough, we're going to start hitting them," said Stewart. "We've got too many good shooters."
Recent SEC results might not have shown that, and Ole Miss did rely more heavily on a zone defense than usual. But Rebel Coach Andy Kennedy said this would have been the gameplan anyway as they hoped to keep State center Jarvis Varnado in some sort of check. It didn't work out as hoped. First, because while Varnado got only five shots he made four and finished with 11 points to match his 11 rebounds.
And secondly because some Dogs regained their aim at the arc on the home court. "I thought they did a good job knocking down shots," Kennedy said. "Ravern got back in a rhythm and Stewart hit some shots." Worse for Ole Miss, the whistles were aimed their way more often and foul problems would take a toll. Meanwhile State's defense, centered as always around Varnado, put a crimp in Rebel schemes as they shot just 38% overall. Though he only blocked four official shots, Varnado was obviously in Ole Miss minds as many attempts were short-armed or looped-high and thus missed.
"They were second-guessing about coming in the hole because they knew I'm a shot blocker," Varnado said. "That's what we wanted them to do, stay out there and shoot threes." Which the Rebels did, missing 20 of 26 attempts. "It puts a premium on making shots," said Kennedy. "And we're 6-for-26. That's not good enough to win on the road, for that lineup to work." An altered lineup too, as the Rebel coach opted not to start soph star Terrico White. "Just trying to shake some things up," he explained.
White did get in 31 minutes with 13 points, while big guard Eniel Polynice led the Rebs with 14 points. New starter F Zach Graham had 11 points and sub-guard Trevor Gaskins 10, each contributing a pair of treys. Stansbury was content to control the paint and take his defensive chances at long range.
"Sometimes you make them, sometimes you don't," said the coach, who should certainly know about hot and cold days at the arc. This time the right team was chilly. "Warren is 1-of-7, White 1-of-4," he said. "I thought were able to mix enough zone with our man, Jarvis can rest more in that zone. We did a much better job of keeping Polynice from driving the lane, that was a huge factor."
The Bulldogs certainly soothed some home-crowd tensions immediately as Stewart and Bost ripped treys to draw a Rebel timeout after just 45 seconds. "For whatever reason we spot teams," said a frustrated Kennedy. The reason this time was Ole Miss' first five possessions produced a strip under the goal, two airballs and two more blocks. Nor did the visitors attempt from long-range until 14:37. But it was good, by Warren, and put his team in front for the first time.
The Rebels eased ahead as much as six points, twice, as the Bulldogs both clanked outside shots or turned the ball over unforced. Their solution, of course, was just keep throwing up the longballs until some fell. Three-straight in fact, with Johnson striking for a pair to put State back on top 23-22 at 6:48. The Dogs had also reached bonus status in ten minutes, and were in automatic two-shots by 5:07.
"It made me feel good, I felt my shot was coming back," said Johnson. "You can't do nothing but keep shooting and hope it goes in." Had a few more gone in—or had they taken better care of the ball--the Bulldogs would have had real control by halftime. As it was the Rebels hung within 33-29 at intermission with 14 points off their bench compared to State's zero…the same number of free throws shot by the Rebs all half.
The second half began even better than the first, with a three-point play by PF Kodi Augustus and more normal treys from Johnson. It was 14:26 when Ole Miss finally found the foul line, with Polynice making both chances. State's lead was up to 15 points and UM's Murphy Holloway was on the bench with four fouls, when the Rebels gambled on pressure defense. It paid off with four Dog turnovers and three transition scores, and when Varnado was called for goaltending a Polynice jumper it was a 55-48 game.
Five straight points by sub forward Romero Osby briefly stemmed this assault but Ole Miss had a little more left in them. Because a couple of White baskets and putback by Graham helped draw the margin to 60-55, and the Rebs got the ball back with a chance for more. Polynice drove the lane only to try finessing his layup in fear of Varnado's reach. It rolled off and this time State ran a set that produced an Osby dunk.
A foul, and payback push by Varnado ("He ‘bowed me in my face," the center said, then admitted "Yeah, I ‘bowed him back!), produced a double-foul that hurt Ole Miss more as Henry earned his fifth personal. State was able to extend their zone a little further out and make the Rebs work longer for open long shots. Still Graham and Gaskins did find creases to keep it a five-point game at the one-minute mark, and a tied ball meant Reb possession.
Graham had a look out top and left it short, while Varnado had snuck back the other way and cashed the uncontested dunk. "That in essence wins it," Kennedy said.
"I was awful proud of our team, not for winning the game but how we won the game," said Stansbury. "We were coming off a tough stretch and all four losses were tough losses. We had a lot of obstacles ahead of us beside playing the game." None of which were enough to block the Bulldogs from earning their sweep—the fourth in the last seven years—and setting their SEC season back in a better direction. But there is no time to enjoy this success because tight scheduling has Auburn coming to town for the weekend.
"We've got our hands full Saturday," said Varnado, recalling how last year the Tigers scored a sweep of State. His coach agreed. "Auburn becomes the most important game. We've got a quick turnaround, and they're good. They beat Georgia worse than anybody has, they went into overtime at Arkansas. And they beat us both times last year. They become a much tougher, more difficult game to prepare for."
But nothing that some good, constructive pre-game tension can't help. "We have two more games in a span of the next five days, and we really need to win them," said Stewart.