The Ole Miss team that took the floor Wednesday against Mississippi State looked nothing like the one of recent days and everything like the club that set the school record for consecutive wins. The Rebels (18-7, 4-7) matched the Bulldogs' early energy and methodically outhustled and outplayed the visitors to close their former gaping wounds with a 74-63 victory in front of an announced crowd of 9,167.
The win snapped a four-game Southeastern Conference losing streak overall and ended a two-game league skid inside Tad Smith Coliseum. The victory also provided some payback for the two teams' last encounter. The Bulldogs throttled Ole Miss by 20 in Starkville earlier this year.
MSU (17-8, 8-3) did its best to supply an early dagger by hitting 8-9 shots out of the gates, including the first three from behind the arc, but the Rebels answered each time and equaled the Bulldogs frenetic pace. Afterward, Ole Miss tightened up its perimeter defense and forced State into 19 straight outside misses.
"I thought Mississippi State came out with great energy early," Andy Kennedy said. "But we were able to score and stay in striking distance. Once we settled in defensively, Mississippi State ended the half 4-of-20."
David Huertas connected three straight 3-pointers to provide offense during the initial MSU run, and then a combined mix of Chris Warren, Eneil Polynice and Dwayne Curtis frustrated State for the remainder of the contest. Warren finished with a game-high 22 points, of which 17 came in the second half. Huertas chipped in those nine.
Polynice was effective guarding Jamont Gordon (20 points) and also ran the point some for the Rebels. The sophomore produced 19 points and worked with Warren to shore up the transition game that had plagued Ole Miss during its losing skid.
The two combined for eight assists against two turnovers, and Warren didn't give away a single possession.
"I thought Chris was very clutch down the stretch and looked comfortable after taking a few questionable shots early," Kennedy said. "We played him off the ball because of Eneil on Jamont, and that worked out well.
Curtis locked down his defense inside and came up huge on the glass. The fifth-year senior added 10 points, but his largest contribution was a career-high 16 rebounds, including eight on the offensive end.
"Curtis is as big as anybody in the SEC," Rick Stansbury said. "His play down low was huge for them. The difference in the first half was they beat us on the backboards."
During the early onslaught by State, the Bulldogs stretched their lead out to seven points at the 12:19 mark of the first half. That would be their largest advantage, and they lost their lead for good when Warren tipped in his own miss three minutes later.
Ole Miss used a variety of defenses in the second half and controlled the pace while pushing its lead to 11 on several occasions, including with 6:33 remaining just before State made one last push.
Two straight long-range bombs from Gordon and one from Ben Hansbrough cut the Rebel advantage to just four in a matter of a minute and thirty seconds. Kennedy called timeout to regroup his unit.
"I reminded them that we still had the lead," Kennedy quipped. "Jamont is a hell of a player, and I knew he would make a push. But we were able to respond. That is a credit to the team."
On the ensuing possession, Warren found Curtis inside for a spin move and a basket. Another lay-up moments later from Curtis pushed the lead to eight with less than three minutes to go.
The Bulldogs had exhausted their runs, and the Rebels hit free throws down the stretch to seal it.
In all, Ole Miss shot 44 percent from the field and held State to 38 percent. The biggest triumph was at the charity stripe, where the Rebels connected for 70 percent, 8-9 in the second half.
"That is a hall of fame number for us," Kennedy said.
Now, it is on to Baton Rouge where Ole Miss must find a way to achieve a road victory. After losing two in a row in Oxford, the Bayou Bengals may provide the best chance to get one back.
State, meanwhile, heads to Columbia to attempt to hold on to the Western Division lead.
"We're at South Carolina next, that is all that matters," Stansbury said.
The next one is all that matters.
He was speaking for the Rebels as well.
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