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OXFORD – Ten months ago when Ole Miss hired Kermit Davis Jr. as its basketball coach, I called it a really wise hire, one that would pay huge dividends in the years ahead.
I just had no idea it would be this fast.
Here Wednesday night before an enthused, at times thunderous crowd of more than 8,000, Davis’s first Rebels reeled off their ninth straight victory, defeating No. 11 Auburn decisively, 82-67. The victory moved to Rebels, picked to finish 13th in the 14-team SEC, to 12-2 overall and 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference.
Davis’ Rebels did what really good basketball teams do: First and foremost, they played really hard. They also played smart. They shared the ball. For the most part, they took really good shots. They defended. Boy, they defended, in both man-to-man and an effective 2-3 zone, against a team that can score fast with a lot of weapons.
Said Davis, “We really responded to all their runs. That’s what good teams do.”
Auburn’s Bruce Pearl was more to the point. “Ole Miss was terrific,” Pearl said. “Kermit did a better job than I did in having his team prepared. They guarded us well. I got out-coached … They were more aggressive. They were more physical. They were tougher.”
Terence Davis, a stupendously talented athlete, led the Rebels with 27 points and 12 rebounds, helping Ole Miss out-rebound the SEC’s leading rebounding team by eight. Asked about Ole Miss’s surprising success Terence Davis said it is simply the result of hard work.
“Man, we practice hard, two or two and a half hours,” he said. “We treat practices like games. We go hard.”
Terence Davis scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the first half when the Rebels bounded out to a 42-29 lead. No question, the crowd had much to do with it. “We feed off them,” Terence Davis said. “It was really loud tonight. We definitely had a home-court advantage.”
And Davis, a senior from Southaven, had plenty of help. Freshman KJ Buffen, a 6-foot-7 forward from Gainesville, Ga., provided 16 points in 23 minutes off the bench. Of Buffen, Kermit Davis said, “He’s just tough. No moment seems too big for him.”
And then there was 7-foot center Dominik Olejniczak, the junior Pole, who might be the SEC’s most improved big man this season. He scored 11 points, provided seven boards and battled Auburn’s big men on better than even terms.
“I thought coming in we had an advantage inside,” Pearl said. “We didn’t.”
Perhaps as impressive as anything: Ole Miss beat the nation’s No. 11 team with leading scorer Breinn Tyree, who scored 31 points against Vanderbilt last Saturday, shooting 1 for 10 and scoring only five points, 13 below his average.
“Breein tried to score 31 in the first half tonight,” Davis said. “That was his problem. That’s why he was 1 for 10. … ”
That’s the deal with Kermit Davis. He will hold every player, including his leading scorer, accountable. And, as he put it, “We beat one of the best teams in the country with our leading scorer going 1 for 10. That’s pretty good.”
Pearl wanted everybody to know Andy Kennedy, the former Ole Miss coach, deserves some credit. “He left Kermit a good team,” Pearl said. “They’ve got some players..
That’s true and something else Pearl said is also true.
“Kermit gives them more discipline offensive,” he said. “Andy gave them more freedom on offense. With freedom sometimes comes some empty possessions. With Kermit, you don’t get empty possessions.”
But you do get defense, lots of it.
And now the Rebels head Saturday to Starkville, where they will take on No. 14 Mississippi State. State will be favored and should be.
For Kermit Davis, Jr., it will be a return to the place where he grew up when his daddy was the Bulldogs coach.
“Me or my brother probably made the first basket ever at Humphrey Coliseum right after it was built,” he said. “It’s going to be different. I know I’ll see a lot of old friends. But I’ve said this before, nobody in that gym Saturday is going to want to beat Mississippi State worse than I do.”