By Brian Scott Rippee, OleMissSports.com
OXFORD, Miss. – The Ole Miss men’s basketball team converted 20 of its 23 free throws in the second half to hold off South Carolina 74-69 in a hard-fought SEC opener on New Year’s Eve at The Pavilion. The Rebels (8-5, 1-0 SEC) got 35 points between seniors Deandre Burnett and Markel Crawford to increase their winning streak to three games heading into the 2018 calendar year.
Andy Kennedy has said numerous times in recent weeks that in order for his team to be successful, it needs to accept its blue-collar identity. The Rebels did exactly that in a five-point win over the Gamecocks (9-4, 0-1 SEC) in a physically and at times ugly game.
Ole Miss has improved on the defensive end of the floor over the last couple of weeks and that is what it used to win this game. The Rebels held South Carolina under 70 points on 22 of 58 shooting and forced the Gamecocks to turn the basketball over 14 times.
“We have gotten better defensively over the last two weeks, certainly in the last two games,” Kennedy said. “I have a pretty clear understanding of our path to success. It is going to take blue-collar approach. Our guys are hopefully starting to figure that out.”
Two of those turnovers came on inbounds passes in the final two minutes. Crawford jumped into the air and stole a pass out on the perimeter with Ole Miss leading 66-63 with a little over a minute left. He got fouled in the process and knocked down two crucial free throws that helped Ole Miss distance itself enough to hold onto the win. The senior had 17 points on 5 of 10 shooting.
“That is a huge play,” Kennedy said. “That’s a winning play because we couldn’t get a stop.”
Burnett led all scorers with 18 points. He and Crawford carried the bulk of the scoring weight. Both got fouled down the stretch. Ole Miss made 20 of its last 23 free throw attempts. That combined with the defense is what sealed the game.
“Just the emphasis of closing big games and making plays down the stretch,” Crawford said. “We needed big stops down the stretch.”
Ole Miss started slow. South Carolina jumped out to a 15-6 lead to start the game as the Rebels missed 14 of their first 19 shots. The Gamecocks were without point guard Hassani Gravett. It forced head coach Frank Martin to play a lot of zone defense, which the Rebels were stagnant against in the early goings. Ole Miss fought its way back into the game and took a 31-30 halftime lead despite getting deep into foul trouble that forced big men Dominik Olejniczak and Marcanvis Hymon to sit on the bench for a good portion of the first 30 minutes.
The Rebels seemed to crack the code to the Gamecock zone in the second half, or at least the back line of it. Hymon got two dunks on alley-oops, the second one tied the game at 45
“They played more zone than they typically do,” Kennedy said. “I thought we were stagnant against it early, but in the second half K.G. (Hymon) did a better job of getting behind it and we set some good screens.”
Ole Miss had a stretch in which it made 9 of 11 shot attempts and it helped them jump in front in the intermediate portion of the second half. A 7-0 spurt that concluded around the five-minute mark gave them a 61-55 lead that it clung to for the final four and a half minutes of the game.
Both teams struggled to make field goals down the stretch. Ole Miss compensated for that by shooting 13 free throws in the final six minutes.
South Carolina did not make a field goal for the final 3:44 of the ballgame. The Rebels won despite Terence Davis getting into foul trouble and not having a significant impact in the game. He had four points in 19 minutes.
“We need him in the game,” Kennedy said. “He and Markel had early foul trouble which really puts us in a bit of a bind.”
This wasn’t the prettiest win. Ole Miss was 20 of 49 from the floor, but the Rebels certainly aren’t concerned with that. This team had struggled to make the necessary plays down the stretch earlier in the year. Three overtime losses at home is evidence of that. They made those plays on this night. Crawford came up big in a game in which Davis struggled.
“I think our effort has been tremendous,” Kennedy said. “We have come back after Christmas and really put in work.”
Ole Miss won despite getting out-rebounded 43-30. Chris Silva was a problem down low for the Rebels. He scored 21 points and snagged 13 rebounds, but was not a factor scoring the basketball in the game’s crucial moments which is a testament to Ole Miss’ defense down the stretch.
“Everything has to be competitive,” Kennedy said. “We have to go battle every day. It takes its toll after a while, but that is who this team is.”
The win got the team to 8-5, and more importantly, 1-0 in the SEC on the season. Ole Miss travels to Athens on Wednesday to face Georgia. Tipoff is at 5:30 p.m. on SEC Network.
“This is big for us,” Crawford said. “Our season has been up-and-down. For us to get a big win against a well-coached team in South Carolina, it gives us a sense of confidence. Big win, on to the next one. We have to get right back to work.”