It finally happened.
“I needed it more than anything,” he said afterward.
Finally, Malik Newman had the breakout game he’d been waiting on, the show Mississippi State fans had been expecting him to put on, the performance his coaches and teammates knew was eventually coming. They just didn’t know when.
On Saturday, against rival Ole Miss, it finally came. That was the Malik Newman everyone expected Malik Newman to be, especially Newman himself.
“It feels great,” Newman said of his performance that night, later adding, “It was a confidence booster.”
The freshman point guard’s 25 points were the highlight, especially the six three-pointers he drilled in the second half as the Bulldogs pulled away from the Rebels (“Once they’re going in shot after shot after shot, the bucket does feel bigger,” he said.), but the performance was more than just hitting big shots.
Newman was passing with a sharp eye, dribbling and driving with purpose, taking on the role of leader and aggressor on the offensive end while playing the best game of his career on the defensive side. As head coach Ben Howland saw it, Newman was playing comfortably and naturally, instead of trying to force things like he had in the past.
“I thought he had his best game of the year,” Howland said. “I thought he played with a lot of swag and confidence. He let things come to him. He didn’t force the issue, didn’t force things offensively. He’s getting better and better defensively, which is exciting. I thought he made some really good plays distributing the ball and making the extra pass to his teammates.”
The immediate result of the performance was a win over the rival for MSU and the first SEC win of the season, both good things. However, it’s what will come from the big game that will have the larger impact. Howland called it a shot in the arm for his star freshman. Newman said he thinks it will open up doors in his game. Senior forward Gavin Ware said the whole thing was a quite sizable confidence boost for the entire team.
MSU has been achingly close to breaking through, which is part of why Saturday’s win felt so good and meant so much to them. They’ve lost games in the final minutes, by a minimal number of points or by means of some specific outstanding performance by an opponent. Since adjusting the starting lineup to include freshman Quinndary Weatherspoon, and since switching to a man-to-man defense, the signs of growth have been clear.
The pieces were there, even if the results were not. With Saturday’s win, the result finally came, too, and in a manner that feels as if it were a launching point for nearly everyone involved – for Newman, who anticipates building on his breakthrough; for Weatherspoon, who has finally found his role; for Ware, who will become one of the biggest benefactors of the freshmen’s success; for Howland, who is in the very earliest stages of building a contender; and most importantly for MSU, a program trying to earn back respect and return to what they consider their rightful place in the hierarchy of SEC and college basketball.
The result of it all is a team that looks it’s coming together. As they described it – and as their smiles on Saturday showed – they’re having fun. Well before the outcome of the game had been decided, MSU’s players were clearly having a ball. Smiling, clapping, jumping and celebrating in front of the biggest crowd they’d had all season, they were genuinely enjoying themselves as, for maybe the first time, everything clicked.
“I think the crowd is really what triggered it,” Newman said. “They were just great. We were just all out there having fun, and when you’re having fun, you smile.”
Realistically, the homegrown star isn’t likely to score 25 points per outing from here on, but whatever dam was blocking the waters of his game has seemingly been broken, an event that will benefit all involved, Newman, Howland and the entire team.
MSU will lose more games, you have to assume. They’ll win plenty more, too, you’d also guess. One great performance doesn’t mean the season won’t still have its ups and downs, but one thing is obvious: Mississippi State basketball just got a lot more interesting and entertaining.
“We were just out there having fun, playing for one another,” Newman said. “We were playing for what was across our chest.”