MSU game important in tight SEC West race

Ole Miss and Mississippi State meet for the second time in 2007 Tuesday night, and both teams are still very much in the hunt for a Southeastern Conference Western Division title.

"Super Tuesday" comes to Oxford. ESPN will broadcast the UM-MSU instate rivalry to the nation beginning at 6 p.m. CST. A couple of hours later, one of the two teams will have an important victory in the "W" column.

The SEC West is anybody's race as the halfway mark of the conference season approaches. Both Ole Miss and State need wins to regain some lost momentum.

The Bulldogs enter the contest with back to back losses - at home - to Florida and South Carolina. They'll be looking for a road win to get back on track.

The Rebels have won just once in their last four games. That was an 83-69 home victory against Tennessee last Wednesday night. Starting with a pep rally outside Tad Smith Coliseum an hour before Tuesday's game, the Rebels are hoping for some more home-game magic, both on the court and in the stands.

Arkansas and Auburn lead the SEC West with 3-4 records to this point (the Rebels play at Auburn Saturday at 1 p.m.). LSU, Alabama, and MSU are 2-4. Ole Miss is 2-5.

"Coach (Andy Kennedy) met with us Sunday and talked about how close the West race is," said senior guard Todd Abernethy. "A win Tuesday night would mean we're right back in the hunt. That's a beautiful thing, knowing we play at home and will have so much fan support to try to get another win. It should be a great atmosphere."

The Rebels enter the game 13-8 overall, while Mississippi State is 11-8.

"They're good," Abernethy said of MSU. "They were very good against us down there. We made a lot of mistakes the first time we played them. We took bad shots and made some bad decisions. We feel we're much better now than we were then."

State beat Ole Miss 77-67 on Jan. 10 in Starkville. The Rebels were 0-2 in SEC play at that point. Since then they've gone 2-3 and their losses have been by single digits - on the road at LSU (62-55), at Florida (79-70), and most recently at Vanderbilt last Saturday (85-80).

"We didn't play well down there (at MSU), and our inability to make plays hurt us," said junior center Dwayne Curtis. "We shot a poor percentage, and in the last few minutes of the game they got the loose balls and made plays to win."

Curtis agrees with Abernethy that the Rebels have come a long way since then.

"Just having had the experience of playing at LSU and at Florida and at Vanderbilt is big for us," he said. "We've improved our intensity level, and now we have to do that for a whole game instead of just the second half, like we've done in some games lately (down 10 to Tennessee at halftime but won by 14; down 15 to Vandy at halftime and lost by only five). If we play both halves like we've played the second half lately, then we can win."

Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said his team has no time to be down about losing its last two games.

"We can't feel sorry for ourselves," he said. "We play a very improved Ole Miss team Tuesday night. Ole Miss has been in every game it's played, and Andy's done a great job with them. It's never easy to win in Oxford."

Kennedy said it's hard to believe that it's been less than three weeks since the Rebels and Bulldogs played in Starkville.

"Seems like a lifetime ago," he quipped.

But he likes the direction his team has headed since boarding the bus northward after the 10-point loss to the arch-rival.

"I hope this (Ole Miss) team understands what we're capable of achieving," he said. "We have nine conference games left. Hopefully we can put some more pieces together and make a run.

"I told our team we're 2-5 (in the SEC) but we're only a game out of first place (in the West)," Kennedy continued. "Take Florida out of the equation, and everybody else in this conference two through 12 appears to be capable of beating each other. There is so much parity in this league. Hopefully in the last half of the conference season we can finish some of these games and win them."

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