What exactly happened in the second half of OSU's 81-69 victory against the Rebels under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden?
A quick glance at the faces of the Ole Miss reserves in the final minutes of the first half painted a clear picture of a team with no answers for what the Buckeyes were doing to them. When the whistle sounded, the score sat at 44-20 OSU – and it was not even that close.
Despite a 3-for-14 shooting performance from beyond the arc, the Buckeyes had posted their fifth-highest first-half point total for myriad reasons that all began with their defense.
Fielding its usual complement of starters, OSU used its full-court press to harass the Ole Miss guards. If the Rebels made it across halfcourt, they were typically greeted by a double-team that frequently featured at least one sizeable post player from the Buckeyes. Then, if they got through that, there was OSU's ever-morphing 3-2 zone defense for them to solve.
The result? Ole Miss shot just 28.6 percent (8 of 28) in the first 20 minutes and committed 12 turnovers while essentially looking like a team that was not quite ready for prime time.
"We had some uncharacteristic ball-handling mistakes," Kennedy said. "People that haven't seen us play, I'm sure they are wondering how we got here."
At halftime, Kennedy perhaps said it all when he said absolutely nothing to his team.
"I didn't speak to them," he said. "I mean, we're six months into this (season). I think we all realize what the deal is.
"Everything that could go wrong went wrong."
In the other locker room, the top-seeded Buckeyes were feeling pretty good about their performance. Senior guard Jamar Butler, who had nine points and two assists in the first half, said his team's performance in the first 20 minutes was possibly the best first half the Buckeyes had put together all season.
Lighty was surprised at the Rebels' performance.
"I don't think we knew they would have that much trouble," he said. "We just tried to stick to our game plan and not change our style of basketball. We practiced (that) a lot and it showed in the first half."
Aside from the score, the OSU dominance was perhaps greater nowhere else than on the glass where a Buckeye team that has given up rebounds like they are going out of style all season had ripped down 31 – more than they had in nine complete games this season. The Rebels, in contrast, had just 14.
The leading rebounder in the first half was freshman Dallas Lauderdale, who had five in eight-plus minutes of action. Seven Buckeyes had three or more boards in the first half, a product of a refocused effort during practice on cleaning up the glass.
"I thought (rebounding) was one of the things Ole Miss could do to hurt us," Matta said. "I thought our guys had great energy going and getting balls. We had a lot of guys on the glass."
Despite all that, there was a second half left to be played – and the Rebels were glad for that fact.
After OSU pushed its lead back to 27 points less than three minutes into the final stanza, tying the high-water mark for the game, the momentum began to shift in the direction of the Rebels. Following a Butler turnover, Mississippi forward Kenny Williams slammed home a behind-the-back pass from guard Tervor Gaskins – who came up with the steal from Butler to start the fast break – that made the score 56-45 OSU.
The lead had been trimmed to 11 points thanks to a 25-12 Ole Miss run in the first 7:59 of the second half.
It was the beginning of a final 20 minutes that saw the Rebels outscore OSU 49-37 and get to within seven points at one point – albeit it too late.
"I was proud our guys continued to fight and get back in the game in the second half," Kennedy said. "But … it was obviously insurmountable."
The Rebels found ways to get the ball inside OSU's zone. The chief benefactor was center Dwayne Curtis, who scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half after going just 1 for 6 in the first 20 minutes. In addition, Ole Miss was 7 of 14 (50.0 percent) in the final 20 minutes from beyond the arc.
Defensively, the Rebels began applying more pressure to the Buckeyes as they brought the ball up the court and forced them to take quick shots with fewer bodies there to try and get a rebound.
It worked – Ole Miss held a 23-19 rebounding advantage in the second half and OSU was held to eight offensive boards after nabbing 12 in the first half. But rather than credit adjustments the Rebels made, Butler put the blame on the Buckeyes.
"We let our guard down," he said. "They made some big shots and got right back in the game. Toward the end we had to make plays and battle them to win it.
"I'm a little disappointed, but you can't be too disappointed especially with me being a senior and having one more game. You have to look past it. A win is a win and move on."