Emotions ran high Saturday afternoon. Andy Kennedy was visibly excited. LaDarius White? Relieved. Aaron Jones couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.
Ole Miss survived a near-upset by South Carolina, the Rebels using a 29-10 run over the final 10:53 for a 75-71 win. They improved to 15-6 overall and 6-2 in Southeastern Conference games.
Even more, they kept their NCAA tournament hopes alive.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more excited (in my coaching career) about what I just witnessed for the last seven minutes,” Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. “That was big-time basketball. You made everything happen. That was a tremendous effort by a group of guys that deserved it from the work they put in.”
White, who scored 12 points, said all the right things last week.
Of how he doesn’t pay attention to the numbers. To where Ole Miss sits on the bubble. To the predictions of national pundits and bracketologists.
He was singing a different tune Saturday.
He admitted postgame he let thoughts of missing the NCAA tournament creep into his head as South Carolina, rated No. 124 in the latest RPI, built a 15-point lead in the second half. The mood of the Ole Miss bench changed. “It got serious,” White said, because reality was sinking in.
The score: 61-46.
Ole Miss flipped a switch.
n about six minutes, from 10:53 to 4:57, Ole Miss cut the deficit to two, capped by a White steal and a layup out of a timeout. The ensuing USC possession resulted in a turnover, leading to Jarvis Summers, who scored 10 of his 15 points in the second half, connecting on a go-ahead 3.
The Rebels led 67-66. A middling but energetic crowd erupted. Ole Miss would trail only once more the rest of the way.
“We grew up today,” White said. “I’m just so speechless right now. I just feel like if it was some time last year or the year before that, we probably would have fell short. But this team has such a bond, it can’t be broken.”
Kennedy has had a consistent message for his team this season, and he’s hammered that message home week in and week out. Game to game. Practice to practice.
Rarely will Ole Miss find itself blowing out its opponent. Each game is a grind for a Rebel team scratching and clawing to keep their head above water and in the postseason conversation. Ten of their games have been decided by five points or less.
“All I can do is challenge them,” Kennedy said. “It’s all I can do not to lose my mind.”
Challenge them, keep his sanity and relish those times when the chips are down, the cards stacked against you.
“I feel like every time with this team, the last 10 minutes, our sense of urgency kicks up,” forward Aaron Jones said.
You learn a lot about a team when times are desperate. Ole Miss, 3-5 versus the RPI top-100, is still without a banner win, and its RPI, at least entering the game, is in the mid-50s.
Opportunities are on the way for Ole Miss to improve its resume. The Rebels would do well to get a win or two out of Kentucky, Florida and Missouri. Such wins are what NCAA tournament cases are built on. Their best win so far is … LSU?
However, on their side are no terrible losses. Yes, Starkville was ugly, but even with the loss to Mississippi State, Ole Miss, to borrow a worn-out cliché, controls its destiny. It holds its fate in its hands.
One would be unwise to rule these Rebels out.
“We deserved to be down 15,” Kennedy said. “They took the fight to us early. I was just proud that they found the wherewithal to finish that game the way they did.”
They finished because they’ve embraced hard. South Carolina is proof enough.
— Ben Garrett, OMSpirit.com
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