When Ole Miss met Mississippi State Thursday night, an emotional letdown would have been expected.
I mean, the Lady Rebels were coming off a significant 80-71 win over No. 12 LSU just days earlier. Senior Bianca Thomas had scored a career-high 42 points that day, including 28 in the second half.
But in front of a lively crowd of 2,034 inside Tad Smith Coliseum, Ole Miss wouldn't be denied its fourth conference win. Though a seesaw battle, the Lady Rebels (13-5, 4-1 SEC) jumped ahead early and built their lead late.
For the fourth time in as many games, Ole Miss exited the floor winners. This time, it was a 66-58 victory over the in-state rival. Ole Miss has now won eight of its last nine contests.
"It just appears that each game we get a little bit better," Ole Miss head coach Renee Ladner said. "This is was a typical Ole Miss-Mississippi State slugfest. Tonight, I guess we had the last punch."
It was a team effort.
Thomas, the SEC scoring leader at 22.9 points per game, was average by her standards. She tied with Shantell Black for the team lead in points with 15, while a total of five players reached double-digit scoring.
Defensively, the Lady Rebels collected 13 steals and created 18 turnovers.
"We have a lot of weapons on our team. It should be that way every night," said Ladner. "Bianca's not going to drop 42 every night. Our other players are going to have to step up, as they did tonight."
Aided by poor shooting and a tendency to turn the ball over, Ole Miss trailed 16-15 early in the first half.
But there was sloppy play on both ends, with the teams combining for 17 turnovers. For the better part of the period, neither team could shake the other.
That is, until Mississippi State (12-7, 3-3) began to run.
With a 10-4 spurt, the Bulldogs held a 26-19 advantage with 3:19 remaining until halftime. They only protected their lead for the remainder, while holding Ole Miss to 39 percent shooting from the floor. At intermission, Mississippi State led 31-27.
"I told them in locker room at halftime, the two things people don't handle well are success and failure," Ladner said. "You had a big win (Sunday) and everybody in the world is telling you how great you are. You're not used to being in that position. You do have a little bit of a letdown. You can let fear creep in.
"We challenged them (at halftime). They took it upon themselves to make plays. They started playing defense and rebounding. The change of the game was the defensive intensity in the second half."
On a mission in the closing period, the Lady Rebels used a frenetic defensive effort to take the lead and keep it.
They scored the first four points of the frame, and even cut the deficit to 36-35 on a 2-point make by Nikki Byrd. However, Mississippi State answered with consecutive buckets.
Ole Miss finally regained the lead on a jumper, plus the foul, by Elizabeth Robertson. Byrd followed with a layup, while Black again connected from the floor. At 45-42, and with 11:23 remaining in regulation, the Lady Rebels would never trail again.
The final Mississippi State threat came with Ole Miss clinging to a 49-48 margin. However, Black scored eight-straight points to erase all doubt of the final outcome, as her team sat comfortably at 57-50.
"In the first half, we weren't the Mississippi team that showed up on Sunday against LSU," said junior Kayla Melson, who contributed 11 points, seven steals and two assists in the win.
"In the second half, we came out and didn't want to lose. We don't want to be called a one-hit wonder. We want to show the world that Ole Miss is for real. Everybody played their best (in the second half). That changed the game."
For the game, Ole Miss shot 48 percent compared to 43 percent for Mississippi State. The Lady Rebels also held the edge in rebounding, 35-25.
Byrd finished with 12 points and nine rebounds. She also had three steals. Robertson added 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting from the floor.
Mississippi State was led by Alexis Rack, who finished with a game-high 19 points. Chanel Mokango was the only other Bulldog in double figures with 10 points.
"They took it at us in the second half. They played tough and broke us down," said Mississippi State head coach Sharon Fanning-Otis. "This league is very competitive. Every game is so very important. You have to play every possession as if it's your last possession. We made some turnovers that were unforced. We have to collectively improve as a team."
Ole Miss returns to action Sunday, as they trip to Athens to take on No. 8 Georgia.
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