By Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – It remains to be seen if defense will carry Ole Miss to the NCAA tournament, as players have suggested, but it certainly got them one step closer Thursday night.
Bianca Thomas, the SEC’s leading scorer, had an off night with 15 points, but the Rebels got hands in the passing lanes in the second half and rallied from nine points back late in the first half to defeat Mississippi State 66-58 before a crowd of 2,034 at Tad Smith Coliseum.
The win is the fourth straight in the SEC for the Rebels (13-5, 4-1), their first such streak under third-year coach Renee Ladner.
Ole Miss had 13 steals, the biggest ones by backcourt mates Kayla Melson and Shantell Black as the Rebels regained the lead near the mid-way point of the second half.
Thomas scored 42 as Ole Miss defeated No. 12 LSU 80-71 last Sunday. Four days later she was 5-for-14 from the floor, 2-for-8 from 3-point range and had six turnovers.
Her teammates had her back, four of them joining her in double figures.
“We did not want to be a one-hit wonder,” Melson said. “Mississippi State is a good team, but our defense overpowered them.”
Black had 15 points, 12 in the second half and sealed the game with a driving scoop shot with 49.9 seconds remaining. Melson and Elizabeth Robertson had 11 each, and sophomore forward Nikki Byrd had 12 points and nine rebounds.
Most of that offense was missing in the first half when MSU held Ole Miss without a field goal for a span of 7 minutes, 40 seconds while it built a 28-19 lead.
“We thought we could do it by just showing up,” said Melson, who had seven assists. “Come to find out we weren’t that good. We had to have our defense.”
MSU led 31-27 at halftime, and Ole Miss was down 38-35 after Mary Kathryn Govero drove by Thomas and scored with 15:03 left in the game.
That’s when the Rebels shifted gears.
Back-to-back steals by Melson resulted in a layup once, then a free throw, and the game was tied.
The lead changed hands three times until Black’s steal and layup gave the Rebels a 45-42 edge.
“Those steals really changed the game and put momentum on our side,” Melson said.
They did not trail again, nor could they relax.
The lead edged out to seven at 49-42, but State got back-to-back 3-pointers from Ashley Jones and Alexis Rack, and it was a one-point game with 7:16 to play.
But Black kept the pressure amped up, scoring eight points on the Rebels’ next three possessions.
Thomas was bidding to become the first Ole Miss player in 24 years to score at least 20 points in six straight games.
“We were aware that they had four people on the floor who could score,” MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. “They were successful as a team. We got inside the zone in the first half, but in the second half we didn’t get the same looks.”
Ladner said Thomas’ lack of scoring was due not only to the MSU defenders but to a lack of execution on offense by her team.
“They were physical with her, and at times we weren’t running our offense. We were late getting it to her at times and made poor decisions.”
Defense overcame those sins.
“It was a typical Ole Miss-Mississippi State slugfest, and tonight we got the last punch.”