January 3, 2018 1:15:03 AM
STARKVILLE -- Quinndary Weatherspoon has heard the chatter; Tuesday gave him a chance to respond.
Mississippi State's junior guard and leading scorer is not blind to the criticism of MSU's non-conference schedule, which ranked 345th out of 351 Division I teams according to Ken Pomeroy's advanced statistics. He knows in the court of public opinion, that strength of schedule (or perceived lack thereof) undermined a 12-1 start.
No. 22 Arkansas granted MSU the first opportunity to make the statement, and it did. For the first time in 19 tries, MSU (13-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) beat a ranked opponent in toppling the Razorbacks (11-3, 1-1 SEC) 78-75. It was MSU's first win over a ranked team since it beat Arizona in 2011.
"We just wanted to prove the critics wrong," Quinndary Weatherspoon said after he and his brother, freshman guard Nick, scored 22 points each. "A lot of people say we didn't play a tough enough schedule in the non-conference, so we just took it personally and tried to come out and get a big win in the SEC.
"We knew they had gotten ranked a couple of days ago when they beat Tennessee and it just motivated us even more."
MSU looked every bit of a motivated team in the first half, particularly defensively. MSU held one of the nation's most prolific offenses to 12 percent below its season average from behind the 3-point line and its worst first half offensively (28 points) in over a month.
That shot at the statement win was on life support just 10 minutes later. Arkansas made 20 of its 31 shots in the second half (64.5 percent); MSU coach Ben Howland called finding a way to win against such a performance, "really incredible."
He can attribute it to two things, one that fed the other: offensive rebounding and free throws.
MSU and Arkansas may have ended the game tied with 39 rebounds, but MSU bested the Razorbacks with 17 offensive rebounds compared to Arkansas' 12. MSU turned that into 16 second-chance points, an opportunity it knew it would have.
"Coach Howland told us they're not a great blocking out team, so if we go hard enough we can get second-chance shots," said Quinndary Weatherspoon, who had five offensive rebounds and seven total. "I just took it personally, wanted to get in there and get second-chance shots for my team."
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson added, "My biggest deal was not that they got them, that they scored on them. That'll cost you on the road."
When those rebounds didn't lead to points, they led to free throw attempts. MSU attempted 40; even in only making 60 percent of them, the sheer volume of them was enough to keep MSU in range for a pair of crucial defensive stops down the stretch.
The performance was not without its flaws, among them an uncharacteristically off night for Aric Holman (four points compared to a 13.1 season average) and 4-for-21 3-point shooting. But, with a game at Ole Miss Saturday and at Florida after that looming, even Howland was willing to soak up the importance of the win for a few hours.
"This is the first time they've been ranked all year, and that's ridiculous," Howland said. "They should've been ranked already: they crushed Minnesota, they beat Oklahoma. This is a really good Arkansas team with seven seniors."
Nick Weatherspoon put it plainly: "We just couldn't give up, we needed this win."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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