Seniors Ladarius White and Aaron Jones combined to score 29 points and grab seven rebounds in leading Ole Miss to an 82-74 win over Alabama Tuesday night in Tuscaloosa. With the win, the Rebels have reached 20 wins (20-10, 11-6 SEC) for the seventh time in nine seasons under head coach Andy Kennedy.
More importantly, however, they moved a step closer to securing an NCAA tournament berth. The Rebels host Vanderbilt Saturday to close out the regular season.
“It’s huge for us,” Kennedy told reporters in his postgame press conference following the win. “I was anxious to see how our guys would respond. Our focus has always been on control your own destiny, and the only way you can do that is by winning games. It’s a huge win for us.”
Ole Miss has now won 11 games away from Tad Smith Coliseum and eight against top-100 RPI teams.
Make no mistake, Tuesday against Alabama was a must-win game if there ever was one. Ole Miss suffered back-to-back losses for the first time all season last week, significantly diminishing their NCAA tournament prospects.
Yes, the Rebels were still widely projected to make the field by all notable bracketologists, but they had to win to stay there. As in, no more bad losses, especially to those outside the RPI top-50. Alabama was No. 82 in the latest RPI rankings released by the NCAA.
Their margin of error was erased in the losses to Georgia and LSU. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had Ole Miss, who entered the night with an RPI of 50, as a No. 9 seed in his latest mock bracket. Another defeat would have meant a fall back to the bubble.
Welcome back, White and Jones.
Alabama was shaping up to be another frustrating night as Ole Miss trailed, 30-24, with mere seconds left before the buzzer sounded for halftime. The Rebels had made just 10 of their 30 attempts, including 2 of 9 from 3. Struggling for momentum, they turned to White for the final shot.
And he delivered, connecting on one of his four 3-pointers in five chances on the night. “I thought that was huge,” Kennedy said. White stood tall again midway through the second half with back-to-back 3s in a 16-second span to give Ole Miss a 55-46 cushion.
“Snoop struggled in the last two or three weeks,” Kennedy said of White, who finished with 19 points on 7 of 9 from the floor. White hadn’t scored double-digit points in his last five games, scoring at a paltry 27-percent clip.
“Huge, huge effort for him. My hope is it will give him the confidence that he needs to finish this thing strong. He let it go in rhythm and made big plays for us.”
Not to be forgotten is Jones. He replaced an unproductive Dwight Coleby early in the game and tied with Sebastian Saiz for a front-court-leading 21 minutes played. He scored 10 points on 5 of 8 shooting, as well as added five rebounds.
Jones led Ole Miss with a +\- (a metric that calculates the overall impact that a player has on team success) of 16.
“This was a big game for our NCAA tournament resume, I guess,” White said in an interview with local media in attendance. “We haven’t done enough. We have to go to the Tad Pad and handle business.”
Ole Miss marches on, a ticket to the Big Dance within reach. A win at home Saturday, where Ole Miss is 9-6 on the year, all but assures the Rebels of making the NCAA tournament field. But they’re not there yet.
However, if White and Jones have anything to do with it, and if they offer up anything close to an encore performance, Ole Miss will be there soon enough.
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