Column: Ole Miss Shows Postseason Fight

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Tomasz Gielo was open for a corner 3, and Stefan Moody found him.

Ole Miss was midway through the first half of a showdown with rival Memphis. The Rebels were already ahead by double-digit points, but Gielo had a chance to add on. He simply needed to step into his shot and do what he was recruited to do. Gielo, a stretch four, was supposed to bring a dimension the Rebels didn’t have with M.J. Rhett - a big who could draw defenders out to the perimeter and make them pay. 

But there was no defender around him this time. He was wide open. He missed.

A timeout was called minutes later. Gielo retreated to the bench. But before he could get there, he was met by head coach Andy Kennedy. One-on-one they talked, and Gielo listened as Kennedy got his point across, showing him the feet he didn’t get set and the shot he rushed. The same shot Gielo makes time and again in practice. Kennedy has seen it, but Gielo has struggled so far this season to bring it to the floor with any consistency, shooting 35 from the field and 28 percent from 3.

“It was wide open,” Kennedy said, hammering the point home.

Gielo got another shot with the half winding down. He was, again, wide open, this time at the top of the key. And, again, Moody found him. When the shot went in, the ball finding almost all net and no rim, he looked to the bench and pointed to Kennedy. 

“I got you, coach,” he said. Kennedy had his fist in the air, setting the defense for the next Memphis possession. But he was nodding with approval. His in-game teaching took, and Ole Miss was running away from Memphis in a game the Rebels needed to further cement their place as an NCAA Tournament contender.

Gielo finished with a modest line. He had 10 points on 3 of 9 shooting (2-6 from 3) and three rebounds. But the Rebels won their sixth game in a row and ninth overall. After a bumpy start to the season, they’ve found themselves, their lineup having settled around star Stefan Moody at point guard.

And Gielo, as well as Rasheed Brooks, Sebastian Saiz and others, have figured out their roles. Gileo doesn’t need to fill up the stat sheet, only provide consistent numbers and make his shots when they’re there. Brooks, a dead-eye shooter from distance, can hang around the perimeter and wait for a dish from Moody. Saiz is the size and inside presence. On and on it goes.

Ole Miss basketball has reached the NCAA Tournament two out of the last three years. This team has the look of one that could get there again. 

“He’s such a competitor,” Kennedy said of Moody, who finished with a team-high 21 points on an un-Moody-like 6 of 20 from the floor. “That’s why our team has got a chance, even though nobody thought we would. Not a soul. 

“This team has got a chance because they compete.”

The Rebels proved Friday they’re resilient. Saiz got knocked out of the game late in the second half after a Memphis player inadvertently popped him in the eye, which resulted in some serious swelling postgame. “Like he was in a boxing match,” as Kennedy described it. Marcanvis Hymon fouled out with just over three minutes to go. Anthony Perez was playing with four fouls late, and Moody wasn’t himself, turning the ball over three times in the frame and making just 1 of 8 shots. They entered the game as the SEC leader in free throw percentage at 75 percent but made a mere 23 of 38 from the line.

Ole Miss has little in the way of front court depth. Memphis was Kennedy’s nightmare scenario come to life. But the Rebels won anyway, namely because they’ve shown a propensity to hang in. Memphis challenged Ole Miss in the second half, even cutting the lead to five, 76-71, with 1:53 left. The Tigers opted to foul Martavious Newby, the Rebels’ offense-challenged guard. 

“They’re disrespecting you, man,” Kennedy said to the Memphis native following a late foul. “You just going to take it?”

Newby hit back-to-back free throws after the pep talk, 5 of 8 in total. He finished 8 of 14 from the stripe, and his final line was 12 points, 12 rebounds three steals and three assists.

“I know me and the Memphis guys were excited to play this game,” Newby said. Probably a little too excited. We had to compose ourselves, settle down and pull out a great road win. It is special to be able to win in front of your friends and family.”

“It means so much to him,” Kennedy said of Newby. “He’s a Memphian. He grew up following the Tigers. He wanted it so bad. I could sense it. During the power outage (before the game), he was back there like a damn Tiger, going back and forth. He certainly played with great energy, great heart. He’s rounding back into shape. 

“He was huge for us tonight in his role.”

Newby is but one example. Embracing roles is why Ole Miss is 9-2; why the Rebels are well-positioned to fight for the postseason again; why they’ll be dangerous come SEC play in January.

They fight.

“They throw the kitchen sink at us defensively,” Kennedy said. “Our guys were still trying to go to Moody. We’re so dependent upon him at times. We needed to go make some plays. We made enough to get a quality road win.”

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