It was a record-breaking crowd in the SJB Pavilion on Tuesday night with over 10,000 people in attendance when the Ole Miss Rebels hosted their bitter in-state foe, the Mississippi State Bulldogs — and the fans got what they paid for.
The Rebels (18-3, 5-3 SEC), under the leadership of first-year head coach Chris Beard, used an early second-half surge and a lopsided margin in the turnover battle to hold on and overcome the Bulldogs (14-7, 3-5 SEC) in round one of an epic slugfest between the two gritty programs.
Mississippi State, led by freshman sensation Josh Hubbard, hit the ground running early to take a 5-0 lead in the first minute and a half of action. A triple by Jaylen “Juju” Murray put Ole Miss on the board and kickstarted a dual between the opposing point guards.
Both teams traded blows with multiple lead changes within the first 10 minutes of action. Mississippi State relied on Hubbard, the Madison-Ridgeland Academy alum who once considered Ole Miss out of high school, to man the ship offensively. Meanwhile, Ole Miss found an unexpected boost from its bench with guard T.J. Caldwell stepping up when some of his veteran teammates struggled to score.
Chris Jans’ team found a groove midway through the first half and managed to take a seven-point lead in a game that had remained within one or two possessions on the scoreboard. The Bulldogs led 27-20 with under seven minutes remaining before the break. Ole Miss senior guard Matthew Murrell connected on a triple to give the Rebels a boost, but it was immediately undercut by a three-pointer from Hubbard.
Nonetheless, the Rebels did not hand their heads. A six-point swing down the stretch and a game-tying triple from Juju Murray knotted things up at the intermission and gave Ole Miss the momentum on home court.
The Rebels carried over the final minutes of the first half into the second, opening things up on a 14-3 run to take a 53-42 lead with just under 15 minutes left in the game. However, Ole Miss big man Moussa Cisse, who had to sit out much of the first half due to foul trouble, picked up his third foul early in the second half and Mississippi State took advantage of his absence.
Ole Miss used freshman big Rashaud Marshall a lot in the first half in place of 7-foot-5 center Jamarion Sharp, but Beard turned to a smaller lineup, using Jackson native Jaemyn Brakefield down low, in the latter portion of the game. Jans adjusted to the move and had his guys go to the glass.
Mississippi State senior sensation Tolu Smith, who had a quiet first half, made his presence known alongside forward Cam Matthews. The two exploited a void in the Rebels’ defense and started to score buckets down low as Hubbard cooled off from behind the arc. Bulldog veterans Shakeel Moore and Dashawn Davis also assisted in the second half, knocking down triples and going to the basket to cut into the Rebels’ lead.
What was once a big lead for Ole Miss was eviscerated when Hubbard came to life, knocking down a three-pointer to put Mississippi State down 71-69 with 6:36 left in the game.
Murrell and Brakefield, quite privy to this rivalry, answered the call to keep Ole Miss atop, but Mississippi State continued to chip away, closing the gap to a one-point disadvantage on two occasions.
When Ole Miss was in dire need of separation, the team turned to none other than Juju Murray to hit the shots needed to cut the Bulldogs’ valiant efforts short. Murray landed a triple with 1:41 left on the clock to take an 82-77 lead. MSU’s Davis countered with a three to reduce the deficit to two with just over a minute left.
With 12 seconds remaining in the game, Ole Miss held a two-point lead, but Mississippi State had the ball with a chance to win or send the game to overtime. The Bulldogs ran a play designed to get Matthews the ball down low and the forward was fouled. Matthews, with the game in his hands, missed both free throws — air-balling the second to give Ole Miss a guaranteed possession.
Caldwell was quickly fouled on the inbound. The guard sank both attempts to give the Rebels an 86-82 victory in front of the historic crowd.
“It’s special. We’re building something here. It’s year one,” Beard said as he showed appreciation for the atmosphere in the SJB Pavilion. “To have this kind of game in late January where our students show up like this — our season ticket holders were there in full force — thank you. Not only thank you for the attendance, but thank you for impacting the game and the environment. It was pretty cool.”
While the crowd was loud and rowdy, it did not deter the Bulldogs from shooting at a high volume. Jans’ team was 54% from the floor and 44% from three. Ole Miss was better from the charity stripe, converting 77% of free throws compared to Mississippi State’s 70%.
Mississippi State hauled in 13 more rebounds than the Ole Miss, but turned the ball over more than twice as many times, giving the Rebels more shots in the contest.
Both teams scored by committee in the midweek showdown. Juju Murray was Ole Miss’ leader with a double-double consisting of 21 points and 11 assists. Murrell had 20 points, Caldwell scored 18, and Jaemyn Brakefield posted 10.
For Mississippi State, Matthews had a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds. Hubbard led the team in scoring with 21 points. Davis had 16 points and Moore scored 15. Smith, who the Rebels made a point of emphasis to limit offensively, only scored nine points.
Ole Miss has now won 12 in a row at home and will look to make it 13 in a revenge game versus Auburn on Saturday at 5 p.m. CT. Meanwhile, Mississippi State will look to regroup and find its first SEC road victory at Alabama on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. central.
Round two of the series between both schools will take place on Wednesday, February 21 in Humphrey Coliseum.
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