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OXFORD, Miss. — It was a fitting ending to see Ole Miss sophomore Matthew Murrell at the free-throw line with 15 seconds left in the game. The ball was in his hands, and he calmly knocked down back-to-back free throws to push the Rebels’ lead over Mississippi State to ten.
Those shots were the nail in the coffin — a moment Murrell can cherish forever. It was the perfect end to a perfect night as Ole Miss defeated arch-rival State, 82-72.
After a heartbreaking overtime loss to Tennessee Wednesday, the Rebels were looking for a bounce-back performance. In the midst of the toughest part of the schedule, Ole Miss needed a good resume win, and on Saturday night the Rebels didn’t disappoint.
In front of a solid crowd at the Sandy and John Black Pavilion, head coach Kermit Davis’ team delivered an Oscar-winning performance, as Ole Miss improved to 9-5 on the season and 1-1 in SEC play.
“There’s nothing like a rivalry game,” said Coach Davis.
“I’ve grown up with this rivalry my whole life and I’ve been on both sides of it, which is unique. Sure am glad to be on this side. (MSU) has a great chance at going to the NCAA Tournament. They’re well-coached, tough. It was a great game, great crowd, and I appreciate everybody that came.“
Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis
In the first half, the Rebels shot a scorching 58% from the field (18-31). It was the aforementioned Murrell who truly stole the show. Against Tennessee, he reached double digits in the first half, and tonight in the first half he was on fire again — shooting a perfect 8-8 from the field while adding five threes. He notched 23 points in the first half.
“Last time I felt this in the zone was at IMG [Academy] in high school when I had played on ESPN. That was the last time I’ve felt this way.“
Matthew Murrell on his outstanding game vs. State
Matthew Murrell with his third triple of the game pic.twitter.com/R1U6kS8oU0
— T.J. (@TJOxley1) January 9, 2022
“Matt Murrell got into an unbelievable zone tonight. He’s been practicing like that lately,” said Coach Davis.
This wasn’t to say the Bulldogs played particularly poorly. Mississippi State shot 50% from the field, too. The contest was only a four-point game until a 12-2 Ole Miss run propelled the lead in the Rebels’ favor.
The Rebels’ lead would remain intact until the final buzzer. Mississippi State would go on a quick 5-0 run of its own to make it a ten-point game, but in a crucial point to stop the comeback it was none other than Murrell who hit back-to-back threes to push the lead up to fourteen at the half.
This is a different Matthew Murrell pic.twitter.com/D0eW66b47G
— T.J. (@TJOxley1) January 9, 2022
In the second half, we saw Nysier Brooks get going early as the Rebels would increase their lead to a high of twenty. The Bulldogs would come storming back, however, as their defense gave Ole Miss some fits as a 12-2 run would cut the lead down to ten before four straight points from Murrell ended the run.
This wouldn’t be the only time Murrell’s heroics were needed.
Late in the second half, State would cut the lead to six. Ole Miss had a few turnovers from forced passes which helped them lose a little bit of their hot rhythm. State’s D.J. Jeffries launched his own five-point mini-run to cut the Rebels’ lead.
But another heroic moment from Murrell and his mid-range pull-up would push the lead back to nine.
Then with the clock winding down, Murrell headed to the free throw line with ice-water in his veins, hitting both shots to finish with a career-high 31 points. On the night, he shot 10-of-11 from the floor, a perfect 5-5 from three, and a perfect 6-6 from the line.
Whenever Ole Miss needed a play, Murrell was there.
For the game, Ole Miss shot 52% (29-56) from the field, 48% from deep (11-23). Murrell (31), Brakefield (15), Brooks (15), and Ruffin (17) all scored in double figures.
Ole Miss tallied 17 assists to 12 turnovers. Guard Jarkel Joiner was doubtful to play tonight due to a back injury, but he did see limited action.
Mississippi State is now 10-4 on the season and 1-1 in SEC play. The Bulldogs shot 44% from the field and 18% from three. The duo of Iverson Molinar and Garrison Brooks each scored 16 points. DJ Jeffries also added 13.
The Rebels needed Nysier to be the enforcer on the inside. State brought a lot of size into the arena and Ole Miss had to answer the call with physicality.
Brooks is naturally looked upon as the most physical player because of his size. But it is more than just being big. It’s about doing all the little things a big man needs to do and fulfilling the role you’re given and doing it well. Tonight, Nysier was the perfect example of that.
In the first half, his physicality was on the defensive end. Brooks was actively engaged, and not only blocked shots but altered them. He held his position well and even when he got beat, he found a way to recover and do his job defensively. For him to do that and to keep out of foul trouble, it places Nysier in the top half of SEC bigs.
Check out the clip below:
10 Seconds of Nysier Brooks playing brilliant defense pic.twitter.com/gmrLCHGV2r
— T.J. (@TJOxley1) January 9, 2022
Its tough for a big — especially at 7’0″ — to be this engaged for a long amount of time. Even when he gets beat a little on the spin, he recovers and blocks the shot leading to the turnover. Well done, Nysier.
The other half comes on the offensive end, and not just from finishing dump-offs or grabbing offensive boards. While Nysier’s run to start in the second half was great (he finished with 11 points and 9 rebounds in the second half), he excelled at doing the small things.
There were a couple of chemistry issues where Ruffin and Brooks forced some things, but to see Brooks do a short roll to the high post and kick for an open shot shows maturity and growth out of the big man.
Overall, the night belongs to Murrell, for sure. But it would be wrong to go without pointing out how great of a game Brooks had and what a presence he brought to the game.
“Nys(ier) Brooks was the difference in the game. 16 rebounds (and was) just was a presence the whole night. He just never left the paint…He can be one of the top rebounders at the rim.“
Kermit Davis on Nysier Brooks
Looking at this roster, there are three guys about whom many fans were particularly excited — the trio of Jaemyn Brakefield, Matthew Murrell, and Daeshun Ruffin. Many have expected big things from so much talent on the court together; however, what they may not have expected were the natural growing pains that come with players establishing chemistry.
A lot of people looked for Brakefield and Murrell to take big steps this season with the program, but it was unfair to expect them to come out and dominate from the beginning of the year. As a reminder, both Murrell and Brakefield played a COVID-riddled year at schools that featured issues. In 2020, almost the entire month of November was taken away for Ole Miss due to the pandemic.
Tonight, however, we saw the future and it is NOW!
Against Tennessee, as mentioned above, Murrell notched double digits in the first half, showing why he was such a highly-rated prospect. And if he was strong against Tennessee, he was otherworldly tonight. The confidence and swagger he brought was almost tangible.
We’re seeing a new Matthew Murrell, and he is fun.
Then we have Jaemyn Brakefield and Daeshun Ruffin. Brakefield spent his first year at Duke but was buried on a loaded frontcourt. Tonight, he played one of his best defensive games and added 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting in a versatile performance.
Ruffin is a true freshman and has really only had about ten full practices in an Ole Miss uniform where he was able to fully participate, as he spent time out with a hand injury. He’s a very good player, and his shot gravity and creation are something fans should be excited about. He finished tonight with 17 points and 8 assists.
Bottom line, this game should have you ecstatic for the direction of the program. These guys are ready to give some big-time performances.
This win over State is a convincing Q2 win. While it was a ten-point game at its conclusion, the Rebels found a way to extend the lead out to twenty at one point.
It was one of the best shooting performances in a half I’ve seen Ole Miss play. Starting with the Tennessee game, this is one of the toughest stretches of the season for the Rebels as they have four games with three of those against Q1 opponents.
While the loss to Tennessee hurts from an emotional standpoint, a Q1 loss doesn’t hurt Ole Miss’ NET standings a whole lot.
So what have the Rebels done thus far in SEC play? They have come out and played their best basketball of the season. This win brings some much-needed confidence to a team that is heading into two crucial games of the season against two Q1 opponents.
The next two games come at A&M and home against Auburn. While I’m not expecting an offensive performance like tonight — or a defensive one like against Tennessee — I believe if Ole Miss plays with the same energy and pulls some of that confidence together…things may get fun again.
Ole Miss returns to the road next Tuesday when it travels to take on Texas A&M (13-2, 2-0 SEC) on Tuesday night. Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m. CT live on SEC Network.
(Feature image credit: Josh McCoy, Ole Miss Athletics)
TJ Oxley is a current MBA student at Ole Miss after having earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Toledo. He currently covers college hoops and the NBA Draft for the Basketball Society as well as all things Ole Miss for The Rebel Walk.