OXFORD, Miss. -- Earlier this week, Mississippi State’s star freshman Rickea Jackson was suffering from strep throat and coach Vic Schaefer needed some offense against Arkansas.
After Aliyah Matharu scored 18 points in 38 minutes against the Razorbacks, minutes were again available for the freshman against Ole Miss, and she provided a memorable encore.
Matharu scored a career-high 24 points in just 19 minutes, helping the 10th-ranked Bulldogs overcome some rusty play early and close out the Rebels 84-59 on Sunday.
Having played just 33 minutes total in seven games prior to Arkansas, Matharu didn’t lose her confidence. That’s something Schaefer admired and rewarded.
“It’s hard when you’re a freshman and you want to be playing. A lot of kids will hang their heads and won’t keep competing but give Aliyah credit, she’s kept fighting,” Schaefer said. “She doesn’t lack confidence; I’ve just got to keep her grounded. She’s got a skill set and that’s why she has swagger.”
Matharu brought a stagnant offense to life for most of those 19 minutes, hitting 8 of 12 shots and 5 of 7 from 3-point range.
It’s her defense that the freshman has worked to improve the most, however. She finished with four rebounds and two steals and felt her work helped ignite the offense.
“I’ve tried to focus on my defense rather than my offense because I know (the offense) will come,” Matharu said. “My teammates play a big role in me getting the shots that I get so I try to just focus on my defense.”
Jordan Danberry also had a big game as the senior finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists for Mississippi State (25-5, 13-3 Southeastern Conference).
Ole Miss (7-22, 0-16) led the Bulldogs 32-30 with 3:16 remaining in the first half before Mississippi State closed on a 14-0 run to end the half. Matharu had eight points during that stretch and it sparked a 24-0 run that went into the third quarter to put Mississippi State ahead 54-32.
The Rebels kept it close for most of the first half. Ole Miss trailed 22-17 at the end of the first quarter and had the lead on a couple of occasions in the second before Matharu helped close it out.
“The first 19 minutes were a preview of what it will look like next year as far as the Mississippi State-Ole Miss rivalry,” Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said. “After we settled down we started to execute the game plan. They’re a great team. Credit coach (Schaefer) and his program.
"I’m looking forward to what’s to come as far as the rivalry is concerned.”
It was 63-48 after three quarters with the Bulldogs well in control.
Ole Miss had 19 turnovers and was outscored 44-20 in the paint. The Bulldogs also won the rebounding battle 30-24. Deja Cage scored 19 points and Dominique Banks had 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting for the Rebels.
The Bulldogs went 34 of 56 (61%) from the field and have now made 50% or better of their shots 12 times this season.
Schaefer's team has won at least 13 games in SEC play for four straight seasons. That had never been done at Mississippi State before his arrival.
“I’m really proud of my team,” Schaefer said. “This has been probably one of the more challenging years for me having to coach everything. They energize me, I love being around them and they’re so much fun, but they can also drain you. You’ve got to embrace it and be in that moment. My job is to show them how good they can be.”
Mississippi State: After being upset by unranked Alabama two weeks ago, the Bulldogs bounced back and won consecutive games against Arkansas and Ole Miss to close the regular season and go into the SEC Tournament with some confidence.
Ole Miss: The Rebels followed up a 9-22 season and 3-13 SEC mark in 2018-19 with seven regular-season wins and zero in conference play this year. McCuin has had a massive rebuild on her hands but did produce a top-ranked signing class for next year.
Mississippi State: Opens SEC tournament play on Friday.
Ole Miss: Plays Missouri on Wednesday in the SEC tournament.
More AP women's basketball: https://apnews.com/Womenscollegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25
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