Tuesday night was supposed to be the exclamation point on a memorable week-plus Ole Miss run in the NIT.
The Rebels were bound for New York, site of the NIT Final Four. They’d been there twice before in school history — first in 2008 and again in 2010 — but the 2017 season had a different feel. Because the hard work was behind them. Two wins on the road to open the postseason, including a memorable, 85-80 final at Syracuse on Saturday, were the stuff March is made for.
Ole Miss had risen to the challenge, and surely the Rebels would rise again. The return home for the quarterfinals against Georgia Tech would be but the latest victory lap for a team that deserved it, to send off seniors Sebastian Saiz and Rasheed Brooks in unforgettable fashion in front of one of the most impressive crowds The Pavilion has hosted since its opening over a year ago.
Only there was a basketball game to play. And Ole Miss lost.
The movie didn’t follow script. Ole Miss had at least one more game, if not a two-game stretch to clinch the NIT championship. The Rebels couldn’t have looked stronger at Syracuse. Thing is, momentum in basketball is the next opponent, and Georgia Tech made shots early and maintained an arm’s length lead throughout as Ole Miss missed field goal attempt after field goal attempt, though the Rebels rallied — pulling to as close as four — with an inspired effort late in the second half.
There’s sure to be disappointment throughout Rebel nation tonight, which is understandable. But if able to put away said disappointment, if for a moment, it’s clear to see the future is bright for Ole Miss basketball, with one of the most experienced, and deep, rosters Andy Kennedy has assembled in his 11-plus years at Ole Miss set for 2017-18.
“Proud of a lot of the things this team accomplished,” Kennedy said. “Preseason, predicted to be ninth in the SEC. Finished tied for fifth, got to 22 wins, got to the postseason. Won a couple of games in the postseason. I think we saw the development of Terence Davis. We’re all excited about the next step for him. Breein Tyree certainly shows flashes. All of the new guys that we brought. We're obviously going to miss Sebas. The rest of the guys are intact. Excited about what we’re doing moving forward.”
I wrote after the Rebels’ loss to Arkansas in the SEC tournament of what next season could bring, but as a refresher: Ole Miss started freshman Tyree, sophomore Davis, junior Deandre Burnett, junior Justas Furmanavicius and Saiz against Georgia Tech. All but Saiz are expected to be back, and 7-foot Drake transfer Dominik Olejniczak is poised to replace Saiz.
“I’m excited about the kids that are in our program,” Kennedy said. “With Big Dom sitting out, he’ll immediately stick right into where Sebas was. Now, will he be able to produce to Sebas’ level? That would be unrealistic. Sebas just had a terrific year. He set records that will stand here for a long, long time. But Dom gives us a presence. Karlis Silins, who went down with the ACL, is another 6-11 kid, so we’ve got size. We’re really excited about the three we signed early. And then we’ll continue to try to evaluate what we need to do in the spring period.”
For as good as Saiz was — with his 15 rebounds Tuesday, he became just the second player in school history to total 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds — he was a liability on the defensive end. Olejniczak should, at the very least, provide the rim protection and pick-and-roll rotations Saiz couldn’t. Ole Miss trailed Georgia Tech by four with a minute left. The Yellow Jackets executed a backdoor cut off the slow rotation of Saiz to go up six and all but seal the game. Ole Miss finished ranked fifth in the SEC in defensive efficiency, but there’s certainly room for improvement.
Another refresher: Ole Miss signed three players in the fall signing period. Two are Top 100 recruits: Four-star Devontae Shuler (No. 99) and four-star Jamarko Pickett (No. 57). Three-star Parker Stewart, a wing, was added, too. Ole Miss will not be pursuing former target Clifton Moore, a forward who signed with Indiana in November. Following the firing of Hoosier head coach Tom Crean, Moore has requested to be released of his letter of intent.
Other targets abound, and Jones County Community College forward Bruce Stevens ranks near the top of the want list. But whoever the Rebels ultimately bring in — at least two, and possibly as many as four — the experience gained in the NIT and the role definition established over these three games are sure to pay dividends.
The NCAA Tournament is always the goal. From the top down — from athletics director Ross Bjork to Kennedy, the players, graduate assistants and managers — the expectation is to make the field of 68. Ole Miss hasn’t been since 2015. Kennedy fully recognizes the Rebels have to get back.
Still, Ole Miss’ performance in the NIT — Tuesday night notwithstanding — cannot be dismissed. The Rebels got a taste of what the postseason can be, the grind of tournament play and what it means to stare down the demand to deliver.
The next NCAA Tournament chase starts now.
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy
On Ben Lammers: “I don’t know if he was the defensive player of the year in the ACC, but I know he led the ACC in blocked shots. It was a quick turn. We had a bit of an advantage from a physical standpoint in that we played Saturday, they played Sunday. From a preparation standpoint, we didn’t know who we were playing, so we couldn’t get into Georgia Tech until Sunday. Lammers is their best player. Their team’s played well. We’d played well coming into tonight. For us, we lead the nation in free throws made. That will never happen again, quite frankly. We went 6 for 8. I thought the zone made us settle a little bit. Some of it’s fool’s gold because we made those shots at Syracuse. You kind of fall in love with it. The guys that were making them a few days were not making them tonight, so you drive it. Lammers had eight blocked shots. We were trying to do things a little too much on our own. We had opportunities. We had that thing down to four. We missed a couple of point-blank looks. Turned it over a couple of times down the stretch.” On the NIT run: “Starting with the South Carolina game to end the season and then we go to the (SEC) tournament and win one, lose one, right there to the bitter end against an Arkansas team that took North Carolina to the bitter end. The one thing I do think this year did, and I think we contributed in some form or fashion, is the fact that maybe now the dialogue will change a little bit about the SEC. We got five bids. Four of them advanced, and three of them are in the Sweet Sixteen. Could have had four with Arkansas taking Carolina to the bitter end. I wish we had played better today. I feel like we let down what a great crowd. Great energy. People that say, oh, Ole Miss doesn’t care about basketball are crazy. You’ve just got to give them a winner, got to get them excited. I thought we did that by our performance in Monmouth and at Syracuse. Our fans responded, and I want to thank them for that. We just did not play well enough to move forward.”
On what it will take to get back to the NCAA Tournament: “The one thing that I just talked to our team about is there’s a lot of different ways to do this thing. But I guarantee you there were 24 teams in the NIT or the NCAA playing as of tonight. I guarantee you, to a one, including Georgia Tech, they all had one common denominator, and that is they protected home floor. That was our sixth loss at home. That’s inexcusable. We’ve got to do a better job. I’m going to really evaluate in the offseason maybe ways to eliminate some distractions. Something’s going on. We don’t seem like we’re as locked in. We lose our focus. With a naked eye, I thought it was one of the worst-executed games we’ve had all season. Again, it’s a two-day turn and we don’t know a lot about Georgia Tech. But we has some key tenants that we were trying to hit upon, and I don’t think we hit them enough. I didn’t like how we followed through on some game-plan issues, and that happens more to us at home than on the road. You’ve got to protect your home floor.” On the finality of the loss: “I talk about it all the time. You get into the monotony. We started this journey in August. This is going on seven months. This is a long journey. That’s done. I think they’re feeling that. I know Sebas is. The finality’s hard in this business. We all get caught up in a six-to-seven-month routine, then it ends. It’s hard for me because I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed we didn’t play better. Georgia Tech, give them credit. They took the fight to us. I’m disappointed now. But as I sit back and I look and I see a lot of the things we went through this season, I think overall there’s a lot to be pleased with.” On Saiz: “He’s been a tremendous player. His numbers, again, will go down in history. You have 23 double-doubles in a Power Five league? He’s improved, he’s a great kid. And I want to tell you something. He has maximized his college experience. He really is what it’s about. He has maximized it. He’s active in a lot of things other than just being a good basketball player. I couldn’t be more pleased. He’s a tremendous kid, and his loss will be felt. But I’m proud to see the man that he leaves here being.”
OXFORD, Miss. -- (Associated Press) Ben Lammers had 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting and added eight blocks, four rebounds, four assists and four steals to lead Georgia Tech of the final four of the NIT with a 74-66 win over Mississippi on Tuesday night.
Josh Okogie led the Yellow Jackets (20-15), who were seeded sixth in their bracket, with 26 points and Quinton Stephens had 10 with seven rebounds.
Georgia Tech never reached the semifinals in eight previous NITs and faces the winner of Cal State Bakersfield-Texas Arlington at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.
Sebastian Saiz had his third-straight NIT double-double and 23rd of the season with 19 points and 15 rebounds for the fifth-seeded Rebels (22-14), who beat top-seeded Syracuse in the second round. Terence Davis added 15 points and Cullen Neal had 13.
Georgia Tech scored the first four points and never trailed, leading 39-30 at the half. Two free throws and a layup by Okogie had the Yellow Jackets up 56-42 with 12:36 to play. Ole Miss never got closer than four, the last time on a thundering dunk by Davis with 1:39 to play.
First-year coach Josh Pastner quickly called a timeout to quiet the home crowd. Okogie then made two free throws as Tech went 6 of 8 from the line to secure the win.