By JOEL COLEMAN
Six games into league play, Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland finally found the winning formula in a Southeastern Conference contest. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
Facing instate rival Ole Miss, MSU’s first-year leader guided his team to an 83-77 win on Saturday at Humphrey Coliseum. The victory snapped the Bulldogs’ five-game losing streak and helped MSU avoid going 0-6 in SEC play for the first time in 30 years.
“I’m proud to be a Bulldog and I’m proud that we came out on top in my first opportunity to play against our rival,” Howland said.
While Mississippi State (8-10, 1-5) broke through as a team, Malik Newman posted his best-yet performance individually. The highly-touted freshman guard led the way for the Bulldogs as he scored a career-high 25 points including seven 3-pointers, just one shy of the school single-game record.
“It was a great game for me,” Newman said. “My teammates did a great job of getting me good looks and I was able to knock them down.”
Newman posted 20 of his 25 points in the second half as the Bulldogs turned a two-point halftime deficit into a win.
“We left the best shooter in the gym open and he made us pay, as he should have,” Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said of Newman. “He made shots and got into a rhythm.”
While Newman carried the Bulldogs in the second half, fellow freshman Quinndary Weatherspoon kept MSU afloat in the opening frame. Weatherspoon scored 15 first-half points before finishing with 18.
“I was trying not to settle for a lot of jumpers and I got a lot of layups,” Weatherspoon said. “That went well for me in the first half.”
Weatherspoon, who didn’t draw his first start in a SEC game until last week against Tennessee, has now started three in a row and averaged just over 18 points per contest in those matchups.
“Weatherspoon is playing phenomenally,” Howland said. “We’re getting used to it.”
Ole Miss (12-7, 2-5) was without the services of three starters in Saturday’s game including the SEC’s leading scorer Stefan Moody, who was out with a hamstring issue. Forward Sebastian Saiz and guard Martavious Newby also sat out because of eye ailments.
Despite the injuries, Howland knew MSU would still face a stiff challenge from the Rebels.
“When these two teams hook up, my sense of it is, it doesn’t matter who’s playing, it’s on,” Howland said.
Ole Miss used a 20-point output from Rasheed Brooks and a double-double from Anthony Perez, who scored 14 points and hauled in 10 rebounds, to keep pace with MSU.
The Rebels led by six points late in the first half at 38-32 with 1:12 before the intermission before Newman caught fire after the break to carry the Bulldogs towards victory.
“Malik Newman was fantastic,” Howland said. “He absolutely took the game over in the second half and really, really got aggressive.”
Newman’s surge helped MSU push out to a 12-point lead at 75-63 with 3:06 to play before the Bulldogs withstood a late push from Ole Miss.
When the final buzzer sounded, Mississippi State had its first SEC win and Howland claimed his first round against the Rebels.
“Nothing is more important to Mississippi State than beating Ole Miss,” Howland said. “I’m sure the same is true for Ole Miss. Since the day I’ve got here, I’ve been told there is one game that matters most and that’s when you play against Ole Miss.”