STARKVILLE — With so much at stake Thursday night, the Mississippi State Bulldogs picked a good time to snap out of a funk.
After losing four-straight games on the road, the Bulldogs got 18 points from guard Ravern Johnson and held the Ole Miss Rebels to 38 percent shooting from the field to post a 71-63 Southeastern Conference win at Humphrey Coliseum.
Mississippi State (17-7, 5-4 SEC) moved into second place behind Arkansas in the SEC Western Division with the victory.
Tbe Bulldogs clinched the season series against the Rebels for the fourth time in the past seven years.
MSU improved to 10-0 this season when shooting 45 percent or better from the floor. The Bulldogs made 49 percent of their shots against the Rebels.
The Bulldogs were 8 of 24 from beyond the 3-point arc, but it was when they made th shots that made the difference.
MSU started the game with back-to-back 3s from Johnson and Barry Stewart, which forced Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy to call a timeout 43 seconds into the game. Then in the second half, Johnson knocked down a pair of treys to fuel a 20-9 run and open up a 15-point lead.
“We knew we had to come out and throw the first punch early,” Johnson said. “Me and Stew (Barry Stewart) came out and hit those 3s back to back and that just gave everybody confidence.”
While the Bulldogs rediscovered their shooting touch, the key was at the foul line where they attempted 19 more free throws than the Rebels (17-7, 5-5), who lost for the third time in four games. The Bulldogs scored 15 of their of their points from the stripe.
Attacking the Ole Miss defense like the Bulldogs did during the first match in Oxford proved effective once more.
“They play aggressive man, and Coach (Rick Stansbury) always says if they”re crowding you”ve a lot you got to drive to the hole and try to draw the foul,” Johnson said. “That”s basically what we did tonight. They gave me a lot of open looks tonight and went zone for most of the game, which freed me up for a lot of open shots and gave us chances to drive to the basket.”
Despite the quick start by MSU, Ole Miss built an 18-12 lead behind three-straight makes and uneasiness on the MSU offensive end that saw Phil Turner get called for a charge, Dee Bost lost the handle on the baseline and Johnson was way off on a 3-point attempt.
The Rebels maintained their lead at six points until Mississippi State made its run through the very aspect of its game it had struggled at during their losing stretch: perimeter shooting.
A Turner steal led to a Stewart fast-break layup before the Bulldogs got going through Johnson and Stewart, both of whom connected from deep on three-out-four possessions to take a 23-22 lead.
Kennedy lamented his team”s foul woes, which hit the frontcourt especially hard with Terrance Henry fouling out and Murphy Holloway finishing with four fouls. Holloway picked up his fourth at the 12:08 mark of the second half.
“We continue to get in foul trouble with our bigs, and we”re forced to go small,” Kennedy said. “When you do that against a team that”s good inside, you”re forced to mix and match. When you get in foul trouble, you get a little tentative and they took advantage of it. And when you go small, you better be efficient from the perimeter.”
Mississippi State”s offense had struggled in recent weeks when the deep shots weren”t falling. At the beginning of the week, Stansbury addressed his team”s issues by insisting “changing things” at this point in the season wouldn”t produce the results the team needs.
Instead, the Bulldogs stuck with the script that has gotten them to the 17 wins. Clutch shooting and stingy defense gave the Bulldogs a 33-29 lead that grew after the break. Even with Ole Miss throwing constant double teams at center Jarvis Varnado, the Bulldogs found a way to do damage inside and out.
“It was hard to get the ball to Jarvis,” Stansbury said. “They were all over him and into our passing lanes. He wasn”t able to get many shots. He really played too many minutes, but he had 11 points and 11 rebounds.”
The ineffectiveness of Ole Miss” frontcourt meant added pressure on guards Terrico White, Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice. White and Polynice combined for 27 points, but Warren was held to three points on 1-for-9 shooting from the floor.
Stansbury said the key was keeping Polynice out of the lane through a different matchup than what the versatile guard had seen in Oxford.
“I felt very comfortable with Ro (MSU forward Romero Osby) guarding Polynice,” Stansbury said. “He gave us a bigger, stronger guy in there rebounding the ball and guarding Polynice.”
The Bulldogs” strong start out of the break led to a 53-38 lead before Ole Miss” frontline depth took a hit with Holloway going to bench.
The Rebels weren”t done, however, applying a full-court press and forcing a string of MSU turnovers to get to within 60-55 at the five-minute mark of the second half.
Mississippi State burned timeouts on back-to-back possessions after being pinned to the sideline and the late-game scenario that haunted the Bulldogs during their losing stretch appeared to be coming back.
Ole Miss” Zach Graham made a 3-pointer to keep the game within five, but a fall-away jumper from Bost with one second on the shot clock extended the lead and helped ensure the win ahead of Saturday”s home match against Auburn.
Varnado added four blocks and four assists, while Bost and Stewart scored 11 and 12 points, respectively.
Polynice led Ole Miss with 14 points and five assists.
Ole Miss returns to the court Feb. 18 at home against Vanderbilt.