Mississippi State Basketball: Dominant Second Half Propels Bulldogs Over Rebels

Mississippi State got the win at home against their rivals to even the season series and win their fourth-straight game.

Feb 21, 2024; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs guard Dashawn Davis (10)
Feb 21, 2024; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs guard Dashawn Davis (10) / Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi State basketball picked up its fourth-straight win Wednesday night in Starkville against rival Ole Miss 83-71. The Bulldogs were able to avenge their January loss to the Rebels, overcoming a four-point halftime deficit with a dominant second half performance. The win moved Mississippi State to 18-8 on the season and 7-6 in the SEC.

State got off to a hot start in the game, racing out to a 20-8 lead by the 12:03 mark of the first half in front of a raucous Humphrey Coliseum crowd. The Rebels had no answers early on for State down low, with State's first 13 points coming from centers Jimmy Bell Jr. and Tolu Smith. All the while, MSU's defense was suffocating Ole Miss, who started the game 2-11 shooting.

But then things began to flip. The Rebels found their shot, as they have so often this season, and did a better job of contesting looks in the post on defense. After getting down 12 early, Ole Miss outscored State 36-20 into halftime. Star guard Matthew Murrell led the way with 16 points, all in the final 10:02 of the first half.

Two issues plagued Mississippi State is their first meeting with the Rebels: turnovers and three point defense. And in the first half, it seemed those would be killers once again. State committed eight first half turnovers, leading to 14 points for Ole Miss. The Rebs knocked down 5-10 behind the arc as part of a 50% first half shooting performance. Despite MSU's own strong half of offensive basketball, they found themselves trailing at home 44-40.

Whatever reset was needed at halftime clearly worked.

MSU opened up the second half with six quick points to grab the lead. The two teams traded blows over the next few minutes. State pulled ahead 56-55 with 13:29 left in the game and never looked back. They outscored Ole Miss 43-27 in the second half for a 13-point final margin.

State's defense rediscovered the form it opened the game with and brought that intensity the entire second half. The Rebels shot just 29.6% from the floor after the break and were 1-9 from three. Matthew Murrell cooled off to 2-9 shooting after his strong start, and no one else picked up the pace.

After it seemed that turnovers would once again cost State against their rivals, the Bulldogs flipped things to their advantage. State committed just two second half turnovers while forcing 10 by the Rebels. In all, MSU forced 17 Ole Miss turnovers, turning those into 21 points. Where turnovers largely lost State the game in Oxford, they were a big reason they won in Starkville.

On offense, Mississippi State continued to attack down low, consistently getting to the foul line. As a whole, the Bulldogs had their typical struggles from the line. They were 23-39 (59%) for the game. But Cam Matthews found some success, going 8-12 as part of an 11 point performance. KeShawn Murphy gave a big performance off the bench with 12 points on 4-8 shooting, including this pivotal three ball.

But the performance of the day belonged to Tolu Smith. In an interesting move, Chris Jans chose to bring Smith off the bench, instead starting Jimmy Bell Jr. Smith, notably, had a rough go of things in the first matchup with Ole Miss and looked off in MSU's last game against Arkansas.

Jans would not state a reason for the decision in the postgame. But whether it was strategic or simply a motivation tactic, it worked. Smith posted 24 points on 8-15 shooting to go along with six rebounds. The Rebs had no answer for him down low. It was the type of performance Mississippi State needs consistently out of Smith, and perhaps they'll continue bringing him off the bench going forward.

This was a crucial win for Mississippi State basketball for a number of reasons. For one, it's simply nice to get back at your rivals. The Rebels are a legitimately good team in their first year under Chris Beard, but getting swept would've been a very tough pill to swallow for a rising Bulldog program.

And then there's the impact on State's tournament chances. After four-straight wins, MSU is in great position to return to March Madness for the second-straight year. This win moved them to 7-6 against Quad 1 and 2 competition, a major positive for the resume. Now, if State can simply find a couple more wins down the stretch, they should absolutely hear their names called on Selection Sunday.

Mississippi State is back in action Saturday night at LSU, where they'll look to add a second road win on the season and win their fifth-straight.