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Ole Miss takes down Mississippi State in front of record SJB Pavilion crowd

Jan. 30—OXFORD — Chris Beard received an introduction to the Ole Miss-Mississippi State basketball rivalry recently at a gas station in Oxford.

The Rebels' first-year head coach was filling up his tank when suddenly someone yelled at him. Beard said he wasn't exactly sure why he was being yelled at until he noticed the man's Mississippi State shirt. The man then winked, Beard said.

Now that the dust has settled on his first matchup with the Bulldogs, Beard truly knows what this rivalry is all about.

With the Rebels up two with 4.1 seconds to play, Mississippi State senior forward Cameron Matthews drew a foul at the rim, a call that drew the ire of the nearby student section. Matthews missed each of his two free throw tries that could have potentially tied the game. Ole Miss sophomore guard T.J. Caldwell then calmly stepped to the line and hit both of his free throws to seal the Rebels' 86-82 Rebels victory Tuesday night at SJB Pavilion in front of a record-setting crowd of 10,630. The win snaps a three-game losing streak in the series for the Rebels (18-3, 5-3), who have won three games in a row overall.

"I've only been here a few months, but I'm starting to understand this deal," Beard said. "It's a great rivalry. I've been watching this for a long time, certainly with Kermit's teams and (Andy Kennedy's) teams. And Mississippi State's had some great basketball over the years. In my opinion, (Mississippi State head coach) Chris Jans is one of the best guys in our game, no doubt about it."

Senior guard Matthew Murrell, junior guard Jaylen Murray and Caldwell scored a combined 59 points. The teams were tied five times and changed leads on five occasions as well.

Murray scored 13 of his 21 points in the second half and hit big shot after big shot late while additionally dishing out 11 assists. Caldwell — who had scored a combined 13 points over seven SEC games — finished with a career-high 18 points.

Beard likes to say college basketball is a players' game. On Tuesday night, Murray, Caldwell, Murrell and the entire Ole Miss team more than backed that assertion. The Rebels shot 51% from the field in the game and 40% from 3-point range. The Bulldogs (14-7, 3-5) entered the game allowing 40.1% and 27.7%, respectively, which ranked 32nd and sixth nationally.

"Whenever you beat a really good team that's well coached like we did tonight, you had some guys step up," Beard said. " Certainly, (Murray) to have 11 assists and only one turnover in the game ... it was elite. ... (It's a) players' game. We don't win tonight without T.J.'s performance coming off the bench."

Murray scored five of the Rebels' first seven points Tuesday and, after trailing early, the Rebels took their first lead of the evening at the 14:41 mark on a layup from senior guard Allen Flanigan. The Rebels forced seven turnovers over the first eight minutes of the game.

Mississippi State later held Ole Miss without a field goal for more than four minutes, pushing the Bulldogs to a 27-20 lead. Mississippi State went on an 11-1 run over that span; the run was eventually broken up by a 3-pointer from Murrell.

Mississippi State freshman guard Josh Hubbard was unstoppable early, as the one-time Ole Miss commit scored 16 of his 21 points in the first half. The Bulldogs were also dominant on the boards in the first, outrebounding Ole Miss 20-14.

Despite trailing by seven with less than three-and-a-half minutes to play in the first, Ole Miss tied the game at 34 on another Murrell 3-pointer. Murray then hit a 3-pointer before the halftime buzzer sounded to tie the game at 39. The Rebels hit 6 of 15 from 3-point range in the half, with two apiece coming from Murrell, Murray and Caldwell.

"It was fun playing out there," Murray said. "I feel like the students, the whole crowd in general, they put a lot of energy to the game. And we were just feeding off of it."

The Rebels came out for the second half scorching hot, opening on a 14-3 run while holding the Bulldogs without a field goal for nearly the first six minutes. Mississippi State senior guard Shakeel Moore's 3-pointer cut the Rebels' lead down to five with just over seven minutes remaining. Hubbard's first field goal of the second half was a massive one, a 3-pointer that later cut lead down to two. With the lead down to one with 3:39 to play, Murray proceeded to hit a pair of clutch 3-pointers to expand the lead back up. Mississippi State's Dashawn Davis responded with a 3-pointer of his own to get the Bulldogs back within a possession.

With just over 12 seconds left to play, Mississippi State got the ball back near the Rebels' basket, and Matthews got to the rim while being fouled by Murrell. He overshot his first free throw and airballed the second. Caldwell then hit a pair of free throws to seal the game.

"(I have) just keeping my head down, not worried about any results from the previous games," Caldwell said. "Just continuing to work and continue to perform."

Both teams return to action Saturday, as Ole Miss hosts No. 16 Auburn at 5 p.m. and Mississippi State faces Alabama on the road at 7:30 p.m. Both games will be broadcast on SEC Network.

michael.katz@djournal.com