OXFORD — Trailing 50-36 at halftime of Saturday night’s game at Ole Miss, Mississippi State had a chance to cut into the lead by opening the second half with possession.
Instead, forward Cameron Matthews and guard Shakeel Moore fumbled an easy handoff, letting the ball squirt out of bounds. Almost immediately, Rebels guard Tye Fagan found a wide-open Nysier Brooks under the basket for an easy dunk.
The two-play sequence aptly summed up Saturday’s 82-72 loss for the Bulldogs (10-4, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) at The Sandy and John Black Pavilion at Ole Miss.
Without forward Tolu Smith, who did not play Saturday for an unspecified reason, Mississippi State looked lifeless in its first SEC loss of the season. Ole Miss (9-5, 1-1 SEC) took a 7-5 lead less than three minutes into the game and never gave up its advantage.
The Rebels’ Matthew Murrell had 23 points in the first half alone, carving up the Bulldogs’ defense. The sophomore guard finished with 31 points to lead all scorers on 10-of-11 shooting.
“I thought that Murrell was fantastic,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland Obviously, he missed one shot and was phenomenal from the 3-point line.
Murrell had 5 of Ole Miss’ 11 made 3s, while the Bulldogs made only 3 of their 16 attempts from deep. Mississippi State shot 45 percent from the field to its rival’s 52 percent mark.
Iverson Molinar and Garrison Brooks each had 16 points to lead Mississippi State, and D.J. Jeffries added 13.
The Bulldogs evidently missed Smith, who has averaged 14.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game this season — but in just five games. The redshirt junior forward has dealt with two separate foot injuries that have caused him to miss a majority of the season, in addition to Friday’s absence.
“We kind of missed Tolu, really,” Molinar said. “Tolu’s a threat down there. He’s one of the best passers out of the post — one of the best post players who can pass the ball, and we kind of needed that today.”
Ole Miss’ Brooks and Co. took full advantage of Smith’s unavailability Saturday night. Brooks racked up eight offensive rebounds, blocked three shots and scored 15 points while matched up with the Bulldogs’ Garrison Brooks and Javian Davis.
Freshman guard Daeshun Ruffin had 17 points for Ole Miss, and Jaemyn Brakefield added 15.
The Rebels stretched their lead to double digits on a Murrell jumper with 5:46 left in the first half and led by 10 or more points for more than 20 minutes. Mississippi State cut the lead to seven points with 4:07 to go, but Murrell sank a deep midrange jumper before Ruffin hit a layup and drew a foul.
For the final time, Ole Miss had an answer to an MSU run. Murrell had four straight points earlier in the half when the Bulldogs cut it to 10; he and Ruffin made 3s midway through the first period after the visitors made it a four-point game. The Rebels led 50-36 at the break.
“I feel like we just had to be a little bit tougher in the first half,” Molinar said.
Mississippi State got things going on offense in the second half, scoring much more effectively at the rim. The Bulldogs finished with 46 points in the paint to Ole Miss’ total of 30.
But they never seriously threatened to overtake the Rebels, who came in more than 60 spots below the Bulldogs in the KenPom.com rankings.
Saturday night, of course, it was hard to tell which team was supposed to be superior. So when the Bulldogs take on SEC-worst Georgia (5-10, 0-2 SEC) at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Starkville, they can’t afford to make the same mistakes.
“This should be a wake-up call for us because we’ve got to have that sense of urgency during the game,” Molinar said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.