March 2, 2013 10:40:08 PM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State University coach Rick Ray can hold his head up high around the community for awhile after what his team accomplished Saturday night.
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 organization houses 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."
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."
MSU will play its final road game of the season Wednesday at South Carolina in a 6 p.m. tip that can be seen on live on the internet at ESPN3.com.