More often than not, NCAA Tournament teams are built around a core, star player.
Kentucky has Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox. UCLA? Lonzo Ball. Villanova’s Josh Hart is arguably the player of the year in college basketball, while the Kansas Jayhawks can hang their hat on the dynamic duo of Frank Mason III and Josh Jackson.
As for Ole Miss, well, take a bow, Terence Davis.
Davis followed a 26-point, career-defining effort in Ole Miss’ historic comeback win over Auburn on Saturday with a career-high 33 points in a 96-76 rally over LSU Tuesday night. And in doing so, he kept the Rebels firmly on the bubble with a critical road trip to Arkansas up next.
“It’s the next one,” head coach Andy Kennedy said. “I am a firm believer in, hey, man, keep your head down, grind. You’ll end up where you’re supposed to end up. We’ve had some success in Bud Walton Arena. We can’t allow the game to be free and easy. We’ve got to get good defensively. We’ve got to get a couple of our key guys playing to their standard and see how we can do.”
Even so, if Davis plays like he has last two games in the final five, Ole Miss (16-10, 7-6 SEC) has a chance. Because Davis can cook.
Ole Miss trailed 47-44 at halftime, and LSU ran out to an 11-point lead early in the second half. But behind Davis, who scored 22 of his 33 points in the frame, the Rebels battled back. Once they tied the score at 72-72, they used a 24-4 run over the final 6:06 to put away a hot-shooting Tiger team paced by NBA prospect Antonio Blakeney. Ole Miss scored the final 17 points of the game over the last 4:06.
Davis matched up with Blakeney one-on-one for much of the night. Blakeney got the upper hand in the first, scoring 22 of his 29 points. But Davis responded, again showing flashes of his own professional potential and exponential growth in just a season’s time. He finished with 13 makes on 21 shot attempts, 3 of 7 made 3s and 4 of 4 shooting from the free throw line. His six rebounds tied for the team lead, and he added four assists and three steals.
“I feel pretty good,” Davis said. “You could see I had a rhythm going. Basketball is mostly a rhythm game. Once you get a rhythm, like Blakeney, he had a rhythm going int eh first half. When you get a rhythm going, it’s hard to stop that rhythm.
“I was competing. We always played each other in AAU, and it was always competitive.”
If Ole Miss is to keep pushing, it will have to be through Davis. He’s the emerging star, the catalyst. And he’s embracing the role and his skyrocketing status. Last season, Davis played 10-plus minutes five times. In 2016-17, he leads the SEC in percentage of a team’s shots taken.
Ole Miss is reaping the bubble benefits as a result.
“He hit some big shots,” LSU head coach Johnny Jones said. “He created some opportunities and made plays. We were looking for him to punch the ball back inside and play off the post. But I thought he got in a catch-and-shoot mode and we had to make some adjustments. He had a huge night for them, especially in the second half.”
Since 2014, only one team, Minnesota, has been left out of the NCAA Tournament with a Top 50 RPI and a Top 50 strength of schedule. The Gophers were 19-13. By comparison, Ole Miss entered play Tuesday night with an RPI of 60 and a strength of schedule of 31. Arkansas is 18-7 (7-5 SEC) on the year, with a RPI rank of 43 and SOS rank of 70.
CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm recently listed Ole Miss third of his first four teams out of the NCAA Tournament. Arkansas was first. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Razorbacks as his last team in.
In short, Saturday is a potential season-turner.
“We’ve got, what, five more games in the regular season? I mean, we’ve got to at least get four of the five and make some noise in the SEC tournament,” Davis said. “Coach always puts in our ear that we’re right there, top six in the league. There’s opportunities out there. We gave up a couple with Baylor and Creighton.”
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy
On the win: “What a crazy game we play. LSU leads for 25 minutes in the game and lose by 20. Crazy. We were so much more effective in the second half. We were sharing the ball. I wanted us to get downhill and put pressure on the basket.” On containing Antonio Blakeney in the second half after 22 in the first: “The game plan was to try to do that the whole game. LSU’s had its struggles. I don’t know their team but I know they’re talented. He was a Top 10 talent in the country out of high school. He’ll play at that (NBA) level. We knew it was going to be through him. We let him drive us. He started making shots, and the team started playing with that same confidence. We just tried to stay attached to him as much as possible.” On the team coming back for the second consecutive game: “Literally I was just telling our group, this season’s a grind. We played an emotional game, dug out of the biggest hole in the history of our program on Saturday. That game ends (late), it’s going to take you a while to get over that. The grind is real. The teams that continue to stay the course win games such as this. You have to protect your home floor. Our next two are on the road. This game was very, very important for us to try to build some momentum.” On if the first half was due, in part, to a letdown from Auburn: “I would hope not, but human nature is human nature. I just didn’t think we played well early. We have to get dirty, we have to get grimy, we have to come up with some stops. We were so good offensively in the second half. Fifty-two points on 57 percent shooting. We’re shooting over 75 percent from the line on the year and shot 90 percent from the line tonight.” On Davis’ shot selection: “Much better. Still a third of his 21 attempts were 3s. But he’s really, really good in the open floor. At one point one of my assistants said he was 15 of his last 16 from two. Antonio Blakeney was guarding him. I was trying to get him some base-line screening action.” On if the team is starting to gel: “Gel? My gosh. We’ve been doing this a long time. We’ve got to get this out of the oven. We’ve got to play better. I’ve gotta get (Sebastian Saiz) back playing better.” On Deandre Burnett: “I thought he played OK. Made a couple of poor decisions. I was pleased to see him making shots. He’s got to be more efficient, and tonight he was.”
OXFORD, Miss. -- (AP) Terence Davis scored a career-high 33 points as Mississippi wiped out a nine-point second half deficit Tuesday to defeat LSU 96-76.
Ole Miss (16-10, 7-6 Southeastern Conference) outscored the Tigers 39-10 in the final 11 minutes to win decisively as Deandre Burnett and Sebastian Saiz had 15 points apiece. Cullen Neal added 10 points as the Rebels hit 18 of 20 free throws (90 percent) to seal it.
LSU (9-16, 1-12) was led by Antonio Blakeney with 29 points, 22 in the first half. Skylar Mays added 19 points, Brandon Sampson had 11 points and Aaron Epps had a double-double with 11 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
The Tigers led 47-44 at halftime and as much as 11 points, 55-44, in the second half before fading in the final 11 minutes. LSU finished 25 of 58 (43 percent) from the field, 8 of 20 (40 percent) from 3-point range, but were hampered by 19 turnovers.
Ole Miss shot 33 of 61 (54 percent), including 12 of 27 (44 percent) on 3-point shots, including three apiece from Rasheed Brooks, Burnett and Davis.
LSU: The Tigers have lost 12 straight games, but have narrowed the loss margin to Kentucky and Arkansas by eight points and led Ole Miss 66-57 with 11 minutes remaining. Blakeney, a sophomore, was 9 of 12 from the field, 4 of 5 from 3-point range in a 22-point first half.
Ole Miss: The Rebels have won four of the last five and is one of six SEC teams over .500 in conference play. Picked ninth in the preseason media poll, Andy Kennedy-coached teams have consistently exceeded preseason expectations. The Rebels are 126 of 148 (85 percent) from the free throw line in the last six games.
LSU visits Alabama Saturday.
Ole Miss opens a two-game road trip at Arkansas Saturday.