STARKVILLE – What began as a nice, little Mississippi story about Kermit Davis Jr.’s first Ole Miss basketball team exceeding preseason expectations has become something much larger, much more regional and national in scope.
Davis’ Rebels made an emphatic statement here Saturday, erasing 11-point first-half and nine-point second half deficits to defeat No. 14 Mississippi State 81-77 before more than 10,000 mostly maroon-clad fans and a CBS television audience.
Don’t look now, but the Rebels, picked to finish last or next-to last in the Southeastern Conference, have now:
• won 10 straight games to get their record to 13-2 overall and 3-0 in the SEC.
• won back-to-back games against teams ranked among the top 14 teams in the USA.
• surely have earned a Top 25 ranking when the polls come out on Monday.
More on what the Rebels have achieved shortly, but first a word about just how thoroughly enjoyable it was to watch the two Magnolia State rivals play such a meaningful, well-played game in such a terrifically intense atmosphere. This was compelling basketball – tough, physical and emotional. Every time one team would make a run and seemingly throw a haymaker, the other would get off the mat and fight back into the game.
In the end, Ole Miss was tougher, more physical and played smarter basketball. And that’s why when the game ended Saturday, the only cheering was from a small section of Ole Miss fans in the upper reaches of the arena – and then in a raucous Rebel locker room, just down the hallway from where post-game interviews were conducted.
As impressive as Wednesday night’s victory over No. 11 Auburn was, this one here at The Hump, was even moreso. When State’s Lamar Peters swished a 3-pointer with 7 minutes, 31 seconds left in the first half, the Bulldogs went up 32-21. State fans seemed about to blow the top off The Hump.
Lesser teams, less tough teams might have folded at that point.
The Rebels answered, fighting back to within 41-39 at halftime.
And then State scored the first seven points of the second half to go up 48-39. Again, State fans were thunderous. Again, Ole Miss seemed punch drunk and on the ropes. And again, the Rebels fought back.
State coach Ben Howland might have said it best. “Ole Miss showed a lot of moxie and toughness,” he said. “Credit them, No. 1.”
Credit Ole Miss for working the ball to get better shots. Credit the Rebels for doing a better job of defending, especially on the perimeter.
The second half comeback didn’t take long. That’s because after State went up by nine points, the Rebels started scoring three points at a time. Freshman Blake Hinson hit three straight 3-pointers, a credit to him – but even he would tell you he couldn’t have much more open looks at the basket. Howland, again: “We did a horrible job on Hinson, and we knew what he was. We knew he could shoot the three.”
The Bulldogs didn’t do much better on Bruce Stevens, who when left wide open on back-to-back possessions, nailed three-balls. The second one gave the Rebels their first lead of the second half, 59-57. They would never trail again.
Rebel after Rebel gave Ole Miss big plays down the stretch. Breein Tyree might have made the two biggest, driving the lane for a tough layup with 50 seconds left to break a 77-77 tie. Then, when fouled with nine seconds left, Tyree made both free throws to extend the final margin to 81-77. Talk about toughness: Tyree went to the locker room in the first half after suffering what first appeared a serious shoulder injury. “It hurt like the devil,” he said afterward. “Still does.”
But he made two of the game’s biggest plays in the final minute to win it.
And you didn’t have to be John Wooden or Adolph Rupp to see that Ole Miss worked harder, passed the ball more to get higher percentage shots over the course of the game, particularly over the final five minutes.
The game ball, if one were awarded, might have gone to Hinson, the freshman, who led all scorers with 26 points and also provided five rebounds, a blocked shot and two steals. But, all in all, the ball probably needed to go to Kermit Davis, Jr., who was returning to the town where he grew up and the school where his daddy coached and where he played and later began his coaching career as a graduate assistant.
“Yes,” Davis said, he did feel a little strange when he took the floor about four minutes before the start of the game and saw so many familiar faces in a place where he learned to shoot baskets himself. And then the game started and he lost himself in the competition and the intensity.
“No,” he said, his father, Kermit Davis, Sr., once a Coach of the Year in the SEC at MSU, wasn’t here.
“Dad just got out of the hospital with pneumonia yesterday,” Kermit, Jr., said. “He just wasn’t up to it.”
Davis smiled, as he said it.
“Probably the best thing that could have happened,” he said, chuckling. “If he had been here, his heart might have got him. Man, that was intense.”