March 2, 2013 10:31:44 PM
STARKVILLE - Mississippi State University coach Rick Ray has said in the past it has been difficult for him and his family to want to be seen in the community during the school's longest in-season losing streak.
Beat the University of Mississippi - problem solved.
Following a 73-67 victory over rival University of Mississippi at Humphrey Coliseum, Ray was just happy that after 49 days of losing that totaled 13 games, he got to speak about the unfamiliarity of success.
"I was just tired of coming up here and talking about a loss after every home game," Ray said. "Maybe I can go out and have some dinner tonight and not be embarrassed."
After a 93-75 loss at Ole Miss on Feb. 6, Ray suggested this rivalry game didn't mean enough to the players on his roster ending his post-game comments with "but it certainly means something to me". The Bulldogs first-year coach backed up those words by speaking to 17 greek houses and student organization headquarters throughout the week and the birthday party for MSU's famous tailgate spot, The Junction, to encourage student attendance for this rivalry game.
The effort paid off with a full student section at Humphrey Coliseum that Ray pointed emphatically to as he walked off the floor triumphantly with a fist pump as he went into the tunnel following the final horn.
MSU's fourth straight win against Ole Miss in Starkville marked the Bulldogs (8-20, 3-13 in Southeastern Conference) first victory against team ranked in the Top 100 of the current ratings percentage index. In one of the first occurrences since taking job at MSU, Ray acknowledged the win shouldn't be noted as a point which the program can turn around its losing ways but the beginning of cleaning up his first season in Starkville.
"I hear people talk all the time about turning the program around, the program was good," Ray said with a nervous laugh. "It's not like the program was in the doldrums when I took over the job. Obviously Coach Stansbury is the all-time winningest coach in Mississippi State history so the turnaround has to be from what we did this season."
MSU led for the 22 minutes of play and held its opponent to less than 40 percent shooting from the field for only the third time since the 13-game losing streak began. The losing streak was the longest in-season drought in the history of the MSU program.
"I can handle the negativity of being 0-2 against Ole Miss and the longest losing streak in Mississippi State history but I don't know if our guys being that fragile can handle that," Ray said. "I'm really happy for them because they don't have to go into the offseason answering all those types of questions."
The return of sophomore forward Roquez Johnson sparked MSU as the Montgomery, Ala., native provided 10 points and five rebounds off the bench after missing three games for a unspecified violation of team rules. The MSU combination of Gavin Ware, Colin Borchert and Johnson outscored Ole Miss' senior frontline of Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway 43-27 after being completely dominant in Oxford near the basket.
"He's an active player and he gave Gavin and myself a chance to sit back and relax more," Borchert said. "The weight just off our shoulders and he took a lot of that away tonight. What he did was nothing short of great."
Borchert, a transfer from East Mississippi Community College, had his most productive game of the 2012-13 season with a career-high 21 points and team-high seven rebounds in 30 minutes. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy acknowledged after the game his team has had problems all season with less than traditional "face-up" power forwards with a shooting range such University of Florida forward Erik Murphy and University of Kentucky sophomore Kyle Wiltjer.
"We struggle with face fours because we're never on the point of attack on ball screens and as a result we get strung out and it then just comes down to whether he'll make an open shot," Kennedy said. "We're not disciplined enough, we're not tough enough to do what we need to do on that ball screen."
Holloway did have an impressive double-double outing with 22 points and 19 rebounds along with five steals but the rest of his team shot just 14 of 56 (32.1 percent) from the field.
Kennedy was confounded Saturday night at the lack of effort from his veteran team knowing the consequences of another disappointing loss with only 14 days till the NCAA tournament bracket is announced on March 17.
"I thought right from the jump Mississippi State was playing like the team that was fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives," Kennedy said. "I have no explanation for that."
MSU junior guard Jalen Steele said Ray told the players in his pre-game speech one of the motivating factors was being able to potentially spoil the postseason hopes of their in-state rival.
"I said we might as well hurt other people's NCAA chances because we're just fighting for what we got right now at the end of the season," Steele said.
Kennedy, who has failed to get Ole Miss to the NCAA tournament in his previous six seasons on the job, dismissed the question about his job security following the loss saying that answer had to come from "the person in charge of my job, not me", which is presumably Rebels Director of Athletics Ross Bjork.
The loss puts Ole Miss (21-7, 10-5) in further jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament for the 11th consecutive season as the Rebels have suffered road defeats at the two schools which reside at the bottom of the conference (MSU and the University of South Carolina).
"I'm the all-time winningest coach in the history of this program (and) I'm very proud of a lot of things that we've done," Kennedy said. "Am I satisfied? Not close but I work at the leisure of my employer."
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.
4. America and the Muslims BOOK REVIEWS