In the most played rivalry series in SEC basketball, the latest chapter included a more unknown Rebel stepping up when Ole Miss needed it most to topple Mississippi State, 86-82.
TJ Caldwell scored a career high 18 points making four of his first four from behind the arc and cemented the final with two clutch free throws with only seconds left in the game. His combined scoring output in the previous seven SEC contests this season? Only 13 points total or less than two points per game in conference play - a HUGE night for the sophomore from Dallas, Tex.
Ole Miss (18-3, 5-3 SEC) is now on a three game win streak and is catapulting itself back into the postseason picture. The Rebels were led in scoring by Juju Murray with 21 points and Matthew Murrell chipped in 20 points as well. Murray logged a double-double with 11 assists on a night where the Rebels shot more than 50 percent from the field.
The two Magnolia State schools were knotted at 39 at the half but an early offensive explosion from Ole Miss in the second half built a 10-point lead that was never relinquished. The Bulldogs (14-7, 3-5 SEC) got within a basket of the lead on a few occasions, but its defense couldn’t seem to get a stop when it was needed most down the stretch.
Then there was the fan support from the student section to the rafters of the SJB Pavilion it was packed with 10,630 people to set a record for the largest basketball attendance in school history. The posts on social media showed the ridiculous atmosphere that clearly played a role in the home court advantage for Ole Miss.
It’s a hell of a time to be an Ole Miss Rebel especially as a student. Between the basketball team and the football team, there’s a combined 20-0 record in this athletic year on campus - just an insane statistic I can’t believe I am typing in the year of our Lord 2024.
Head coach Chris Beard threw up prayer hands to the student section in the post game thanking the students for the raucous atmosphere. In Beard’s postgame press conference, the first year coach said the in-state rivalry has a different level of intensity as a State fan had an interaction with him earlier in the week.
“The other day I was getting gas and someone kinda yelled at me... I don’t know if I took his pump or whatever,” he said. “I looked back and he had a Miss. St. shirt on and kind of winked at me.”
The Rebels now have probably one of its biggest home games in five years with the No. 16 Auburn Tigers coming to the Pavilion on Saturday. A win would put Ole Miss into the top three or four in the conference halfway through the SEC slate. As of Jan. 31, the Rebels have climbed to No. 53 in the NET rankings that help decide the at large bids for the NCAA Tournament, and ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Ole Miss solidly in right now as a nine seed.
With Saturday’s game tipping off at 5 p.m. CT, it has the potential to be another record setting attendance game as tickets have already sold out. The Tigers are on a two game losing streak currently but host the moribund Vanderbilt Commodores on Wednesday at 8 p.m. CT.