Ole Miss basketball celebrated Thanksgiving with an easy win over Montana, but a few days removed from its first loss of the season, an 86-77 loss to No. 12 Creighton. Sure, the 86-81 final score doesn’t look all that inspiring, but the Rebels controlled the game throughout. And, remember, the margin of victory doesn’t matter, only the victory. Ole Miss is 5-1 and in a good place both in the RPI and strength of schedule with back-to-back home games against Middle Tennessee and Memphis coming up.
The biggest takeaway from Thursday was the continued emergence of Terence Davis. I’m on record as naming Davis my breakout star for 2016. Rasheed Brooks has been dealing with personal, off-the-court issues which obviously affected his performance against Montana. He was 0 of 6 from the field, including 0 of 2 from 3. He played 19 minutes. Kennedy leaned more on Davis, running the true sophomore on the floor for 24 minutes. Davis, in response, shined. He was third on the team in scoring with 18 points, connecting on 6 of 9 field goals, 3 of 4 3s and 3 of 4 free throws. He also grabbed five rebounds.
It’s becoming harder and harder for Kennedy to keep Davis off the floor. Ideally, Davis is the anchor of the second unit; an instant-offense spark plug who can act as a one-man run of points with his ability to create as well as make 3s in bunches when his shot is on. He brings energy, too, though his defense is still a work in progress. But the similarities between Davis and former Rebel Terrico White are undeniable. White, like Davis, was a three-star recruit from Memphis who Kennedy targeted in recruiting early. He turned him into an NBA player. Davis has a long way to go, no doubt, but he has next-level ability. Brooks would be the odd man out should Davis continue to come on. Such a move could create some issues rotationally, so Davis moving up might not happen anytime soon, if at all. But his minutes will keep climbing. As long as he can stay on the floor and out of foul trouble, he could be in for a special season.
Ole Miss is still struggling with turnovers, and the lack of a primary, game-in, game-out ball-handler is an obvious concern. Still, the Rebels continue to display roster balance and 1-5 scoring ability. Deandre Burnett led all scorers with 21 points. Cullen Neal scored 19 on 6 of 12 from the field. Sebastian Saiz had yet another double-double with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Should the Rebels produce such numbers on a consistent basis from three of their starting five, like they did Thursday, they’re going to win and win often.
Ole Miss’ strong start to the season rolled on as most were putting away turkey and all the fixings. The way things are going, the NCAA Tournament is where the Rebels are appear headed.
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy
On hanging on to win: “We’ve now played six games. We’re 20 percent done with our season, approximately. And those six came in 14 days, so quick turn, quick turn, quick turn. 5-1 is 5-1, but defensively there’s a recurring theme. We’re giving up 12 made 3-pointers a game at 45 percent. We’re making a lot of mistakes as it relates to guarding the ball, which creates unnecessary rotations. And then the thing that infuriates me, and I”m not supposed to be mad on Thanksgiving, but the thing that infuriates me is the scouting report errors. In the gym tonight you could hear us yelling, ‘Don’t leave, he’s a shooter.’ And we leave. We’ve got to have a little more personal accountability as it relates to preparing for the game. Coaches can know it and we can try to transfer it to the players, but we’ve got to do a better job of owning that. Some of that could be in a lot of new faces and a lot of new roles. But pleased with us offensively. We’re scoring, consistently, in the high-80s. Turnovers continue to come down. We’ve just got to continue to work. We’ve got our work in front of us, and we’re going to put it in.” On Davis starting the second half: “(Brooks) just owned it in the locker room. As a basketball player, basketball coach, you’ve got to learn to compartmentalize. If you’ve got an issue in one area of your life, you can’t allow it to affect this. He’s been distracted off the floor for a couple of days, and he allowed it to affect his performance. That’s the reason I put (Davis) in.” On the offense: “I think we got up by 12 or 13 early. They were struggling. We put it in cruise control. To start the second half we got it back to 16, 17. Then, again, loose balls, small things. Ball-getters are important. We don’t have any. Somebody’s got to go get the ball. They didn’t stop playing. This team has been on the road for about two weeks. They’re going to win games in the Big Sky.”
OXFORD, Miss. (AP) - Deandre Burnett hit 5 of 6 free throws in the final two minutes and finished with 21 points, and Ole Miss held off Montana for an 86-81 win on Thursday night.
Cullen Neal added 19 points, including five 3-pointers, Terence Davis scored 18 points, and Sebastian Saiz had 17 points and 13 rebounds.
Sayeed Pridgett led Montana (1-5) with 19 points. Ahmaad Rorie added 18 points and Jack Lopez scored 17.
Ole Miss led by as many as 18 points midway through the second half, taking a 62-44 lead on Saiz's traditional 3-point play. Montana got as close as 81-76 in the final minute. However, Lopez missed a 3-pointer that would have pulled the Grizzlies within one possession, and the Rebels converted at the free throw line over the final 30 seconds to seal it.
Ole Miss led by 12 at halftime after building a 14-point lead in the first half, thanks primarily to the 3-point shooting of Neal and Davis, each of whom hit three treys in the opening 20 minutes.