By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Craig Sword finally understands what it means to play Ole Miss, which was evident when he leaped into the student section following Mississippi State’s 73-67 defeat of its arch-rival on Saturday.
“I didn’t know this was a big rivalry game like this until now,” said the freshman guard, who’s from Alabama. “We won, and I see how everybody felt.”
While it was nice for MSU to beat Ole Miss in front of the loudest crowd Humphrey Coliseum has had all season, there are other, weightier meanings attached to this win.
For one, it snapped State’s 13-game losing streak, which was one shy of a school record. The Bulldogs (8-20, 3-13 SEC) hadn’t won since Jan. 12 – and for a young team like this, something good needed to happen.
“I can handle the negativity of being 0-2 against Ole Miss and breaking the all-time losing streak in Mississippi State history and things like that, but I don’t know if our guys, being that fragile, can handle that,” first-year coach Rick Ray said. “I’m really happy for them, because they don’t have to go into the offseason answering all those questions.”
There will, of course, still be questions about this program in the offseason. Ray is hoping the return of some injured players, plus three signees, will help provide answers for a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2009.
If things do improve, this win over Ole Miss could become viewed as a turning point.
A team prone to second-half collapses seemed on the verge of one Saturday when MSU went six-plus minutes without scoring in the second half. But the Bulldogs, playing with seven scholarship players, found a second wind, using an 18-8 spurt to take a 12-point lead.
They finally finished a game strong.
“Everybody was playing as one,” guard Jalen Steele said.
Players noted after the game that they were motivated by the opponent, by the chance to hurt the Rebels’ NCAA hopes, and by the crowd.
That was fine for one game, but Ray said going forward, the motivation needs to come from within.
That’s what will help this program grow.
“The motivation is winning,” Ray said, “and that’s what we’ve got to get to.”
Brad Locke (brad.locke@journalinc .com) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at DJournal.com.