By: Jeff Roberson
The 74-66 win was difficult, but Andy Kennedy said they’re all this way – all 320 he’s coached at Ole Miss.
“That was a hard game, and Alabama’s a good basketball team,” Kennedy said. You see why they’ve beaten Notre Dame, Clemson and Wichita State.”
His team was pretty good as well and made things difficult for the Crimson Tide. The Rebels were coming off their worst game of the year, a 22-point loss at Kentucky. But Thursday night, before an estimated 9,500 fans, they bounced back.
Stefan Moody and Sebastian Saiz led the Rebels with 21 points each. Saiz had 16 rebounds, a block and a steal.
“It was his best game as an Ole Miss Rebel,” Kennedy said of Saiz. “Based on the circumstances and the enormity of the moment with this historic night in our program, he really stepped up and made hard plays.”
Alabama led 40-32 at halftime after trailing 25-15. Tide head coach Avery Johnson said he was pleased with his team during that time, but not as much in the second period.
“We played a terrific first half. Textbook,” he said. “That was on both ends of the floor. We go into the locker room with an eight-point lead. But in some of our bigger games this year, our Achilles heel has been early in the second half. We used a timeout early to try to get our team settled down. We had seven turnovers in the first half and 12 in the second. And we didn’t rebound.”
Johnson, too, was impressed with Saiz.
“He was tough on us all night long - rebounding, post moves,” the first-year Crimson Tide head coach said. “Overall I thought we did a decent job on (Moody). We don’t make excuses or complain. We’re a hard-hat team that just didn’t do a very good job taking care of the ball in the second half.”
In the first seven minutes of the second half the Rebels tied it 44-44. A layup by Saiz gave Ole Miss a 71-63 lead with a minute and a half to go, and the game was basically decided.
The Rebels held Alabama to 26 points in the second half. Saiz said at halftime they talked about being more aggressive in all aspects.
“We talked about having to be tougher,” he said, “and we did that in the second half.”
Saiz said the team loved the new arena and the new environment.
“This is like a totally different team,” Saiz said of playing in the new arena. “The energy is so much better. We had to win the first one, the opener. It was a great win.”
Kennedy said his team has some things to improve upon, including the pace it’s playing.
“I don’t like where we are tempo-wise,” he said. “We have to play faster, I think.”
So how important was it, according to Kennedy, for his team to get a win before so many wound up fans in their beautiful new facility?
“It was everything,” he said. “It’s such an honor for me to be a head coach in the SEC in my home state for our Flagship university. I honestly felt more pressure tonight than I did in the SEC Championship game, than I did in the NCAA Tournament. I did not want to let these people down. The energy in the crowd allowed us to play as we did down the stretch.”
Alabama fell to 9-4, 0-1 SEC, and Ole Miss improved to 11-3, 1-1.
Now there’s a quick turnaround as Ole Miss hosts Georgia Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
“It is what it is,” Kennedy said. “It helps you on the front end, hurts on the back end. But they were still screwing in the seats at about 7:59 p.m., so I think we needed an extra day.”