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Second half surge propels Mississippi State basketball to 83-71 win over Ole Miss

Mississippi State basketball
Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

NCAA Tournament hopes continue to get stronger for Mississippi State as they do the exact opposite for Ole Miss following Wednesday night’s showdown in Starkville.

A strong second-half performance by MSU on both ends of the court catapulted the Bulldogs (18-8, 7-6 SEC) to an 83-71 win over the Rebels (19-7, 6-7 SEC) to split the series between the two programs.

Mississippi State, feeding off the anxious home crowd that was hungry for a win after the baseball team had laid an egg moments prior, hit the ground running early. The Bulldogs attacked the basket early and often. Big men Jimmy Bell, Jr., and Tolu Smith, who came off the bench in a rare move, accounted for the first 13 points scored by MSU on a 13-4 run through five minutes of action. This was largely due to Ole Miss big man Moussa Cisse picking up two fouls in the first couple of minutes, forcing him to go to the bench.

Just as Ole Miss guard Jaylen Murray, who struggled early, connected on a jumper, D.J. Jeffries buried a triple on the other end to put the Bulldogs up by double-digits at the 14:10 mark. Mississippi State continued to try to bury its opponent, leading 20-8 with 12 minutes left, but Rebel standout Matthew Murrell had different plans.

Over the course of the next six minutes, Ole Miss cut the deficit to one point, with Murrell’s 11 points leading the team on a 22-11 run. Building on the momentum garnered, the Rebels took a 34-33 lead, their first of the contest, and did not look back. A defensive adjustment made by Chris Beard to keep the ball from swinging down low also slowed Mississippi State’s offense.

Chris Jans’ group continued to attack, forcing Ole Miss’ bigs to foul in the paint, subsequently sending Smith to the free-throw line, to try to regain control of a game they once dominated. With 31 seconds left, the Bulldogs were neither able to knock in a shot nor capitalize on a second-chance opportunity as the clock expired, giving Ole Miss a 44-40 advantage at the half.

The Rebels’ momentum did not carry over into the second half. Jans continued to press the issue by having his guards get his ball to the bigs down low — and it paid dividends. A six-point swing led by Cam Matthews and Josh Hubbard, in one of his quietest performances of the season, gave the Bulldogs a 46-44 advantage in the first minute after the intermission. Cisse also picked up his third foul of the game on the first MSU offensive possession, making him a nonfactor for the majority of the night as he inevitably fouled out later in the competition.

Mississippi State, smelling blood in the water, did not let up and multiple players got in on the action against the team’s in-state foe. Forward KeShawn Murphy and guard Shakeel Moore took initiative and scored buckets, mostly in the paint, to mount a double-digit lead with under 10 minutes remaining in the game.

However, the Bulldogs hit a four-minute cold streak down the stretch, leaving the door open for the visiting team to play spoiler. Ole Miss, in its most pivotal point of the game, looked to its highest-contributing veterans in Murrell, Allen Flanigan, and Jaylen Murray to cut the deficit to four points with just over five minutes remaining in the contest, but Mississippi State did not let a repeat of the first half play out.

Instead, the Bulldogs closed out the last four minutes on a 9-3 run, forcing four Ole Miss turnovers in that stint, to close out the double-digit victory at home and continue to build a viable NCAA Tournament resume.

“From a program perspective, it was a rivalry game. Everybody talks about it and I’ve been here long enough to really understand how meaningful it is to both fanbases. It’s a big deal,” Jans said after the big win. “We have a bunch of Mississippi kids on our roster and for them to be able to have that for the rest of their lives forever is a big deal and certainly that was important.”

59% of Mississippi State’s scoring on Wednesday came from the bench, and while the asterisk attached to that figure comes as a result of Smith scoring 24 of those bench points, Jans had other guys step up in a game where his team’s most prolific scorer was minimized.

KeShawn Murphy and D.J. Jeffries accounted for 21 of the points from non-starters. Other strong offensive contributors were Shakeel Moore with 12 and Cam Matthews with 11.

Murrell was Ole Miss’ brightest light offensively with 23 points. Jaylen Murray and Flanigan had 12 apiece on the scoreboard.

Free throws were the subject of controversy following the final result of the game. Ole Miss head coach Chris Beard took exception to the fact that Mississippi State’s two big men were not whistled once, despite their constant aggressive play down low. The Bulldogs also had 18 more attempts from the charity stripe, but only made four more free throws than their foe.

Turnovers were ultimately the biggest difference in the game. The last time the two teams faced off, the Rebels protected the ball and forced Mississippi State to cough it up twice as many times. The opposite took place in the latest meeting between the in-state rivals. Ole Miss turned the ball over 17 times compared to Mississippi State’s 10.

Ole Miss is now on the outside looking for an opportunity to be featured among the teams occupying slots on March Madness brackets. The team will look to get in the good graces of bracketologists in a home game versus South Carolina on Saturday at 3 p.m. central.

Mississippi State, sitting comfortably in NCAA Tournament standings, will travel to Baton Rouge to take on LSU on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. CT.

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