January 11, 2014 11:29:08 PM
STARKVILLE -- Rick Ray's words didn't fall on deaf ears Saturday.
After Ray spoke all week about the Mississippi State men's basketball team's "bugaboo" of second-half collapses, the second-year head coach watched MSU finish in strong fashion for a 76-72 win in front of a season-high crowd of 8,841 at Humphrey Coliseum.
MSU ended its 15th victory in its last 16 home games against Ole Miss on a 14-6 run. The ending was satisfying after it squandered a first-half lead at No. 14 Kentucky four days ago. MSU (11-4, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) won the game at the free throw line and thanks a key strategic defensive move.
"This was a great win, and it is not just because we beat Ole Miss, it is because we were faced with adversity and still came up with a way to win this basketball game," Ray said. "We have only eight scholarship players, and we managed to continue that focus to close out a win."
After Ole Miss guard Jarvis Summers hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 72 with 93 seconds remaining, Ray brought Fred Thomas off the bench to shadow the Rebels' leading scorer. On the final two possessions, Ole Miss, which was playing without sharpshooter Marshall Henderson (suspension), forced the ball unsuccessfully to Summers.
Undeterred by his 2-of-9 shooting from the field, Thomas bothered Summers, a 6-foot-3 junior guard. It was a matchup Thomas, a 6-5 sophomore from Jackson Jim Hill High, was familiar because battled Summers, who is from Jackson Provine, often in high school.
"I think Fred's length and athleticism really bothers shooters on the defensive end, and I don't think Summers got the separation he needed on those off-ball screens for those last two shots," Ray said. "It's a credit to Fred to not let his offense and shooting affect his defensive effort."
Henderson, a senior shooting guard, was suspended for the game due to a school-imposed suspension announced in October.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who is from Louisville, has only one victory in Starkville in his eight years with the Rebels (10-5, 1-1). After the game, Kennedy said his team's tendency to settle for 3-pointers (it was 10 of 29 from beyond the arc) is a fatal flaw with 16 SEC regular-season games left.
"We have to turn the page to some of our younger guys and give them the same opportunities we're giving some of our older guys because we're not playing as experienced as I would hope our upperclassmen would," Kennedy said.
Roquez Johnson tied a career high with a team-best 20 points mostly on his traditional putbacks and drives against an inexperienced frontcourt. Ray admitted Johnson's game isn't hard to figure out, but the junior forward still has seven double-figure games this season.
"Just keep him off the glass and don't let him drive right," Ray said. "I just think he is a hard matchup because most guys are playing traditional power forwards, and he is not a traditional power forward because he has the ability to get by with his quickness and athletic ability."
Ray also recognized a way for MSU to aggressively break down Ole Miss' zone defense to get to the free throw line. The approach worked as the Bulldogs were 28 of 42 from the free throw line. Ole Miss was 10 of 12.
MSU sophomore guard Craig Sword had to go back to his junior varsity high school days for the last time he failed to make a field goal in a game. However, MSU's leading scorer still had 15 points. Although he entered the game shooting 55.7 percent from the free throw line, Sword was 15 of 18 Saturday.
"I kept being aggressive and attacking the goal, but I couldn't get any shots in because they kept fouling me," Sword said. "I would go to the line and they would just foul me, but I have been practicing on my free throws a lot."
In its SEC opener against Kentucky, the Wildcats outscored the Bulldogs by 25 in the second half. After the game, Ray was disappointed with the Bulldogs' inability to maintain their identity against a quality opponent.
Ray had other things to talk about after beating Ole Miss.
"There are not very many times when you win a basketball game where you are 4 of 21 from the 3-point line, shoot 37 percent from the field, and yet we still found a way to win," Ray said.
Saturday marked the first win for MSU this season against a team ranked in the top 150 of the latest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).
MSU will try to make it back-to-back SEC wins for the first time since the first two games of the 2012-13 league slate when it plays at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Alabama.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.