OXFORD – Let’s get this out of the way first: Ole Miss players stood, hands over their hearts, for the national anthem Wednesday night. And when Jacksonian Pryor Lampton completed a stirring rendition of that difficult song, the sellout crowd cheered and Rebel players applauded.
Then came the main event. And, man oh man, what a terrific game ensued. Seventh ranked Tennessee survived a fanatical Ole Miss effort and headed back to Knoxville with a hard-earned 73-71 victory before announced crowd of 9,500.
“It was like a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 game,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, who knows all about those sorts of battles. “Ole Miss can play with anybody in the country”
Thus, the 25-3 Vols remain in a first place tie in the Southeastern Conference, while Ole Miss drops to 19-9 overall and 9-6 in the SEC. The Rebels narrowly missed a chance to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth and a chance to stake a claim to a higher seeding.
“We’ve still got work to do,” said Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis, Jr., when asked about the NCAA Tournament, and he’s probably right.
With a victory Wednesday night, he would not have had to say that.
And the Rebels were close, so close to beating a team, Davis said, “that might win a national championship.”
Ole Miss led 71-70 when Breein Tyree, one of the best foul shooters in the SEC, stepped to the foul line to shoot a one-plus-one situation. Get this: Ole Miss had made all 14 of its previous free throw attempts. Tyree, an 83 percent shooter on the season, had made all four of his his freebies. Kermit Davis already planned to call a timeout, with a 3-point lead, as soon as Tyree made both shots. So, of course…
And then Tennessee did what great teams do. The Vols made the Rebels pay. Grant Williams drove the lane, and, with three seconds left and heavily guarded by two Rebels, he put up a difficult layup that bounced around – and went in.
“He made a tough shot, such a tough shot,” Kermit Davis would say. “I thought we defended it about as well as we could.”
In the end, Tennessee was just a little bit better – although Ole Miss fans clearly thought the Vols had some help at the end. The Rebels still had time for a desperation shot. Devontae Shuler took off, dribbling down the floor when Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield stepped in front of him just as Shuler was about to launch that desperation shot.
Official Pat Adams blew his whistle. Barnes had to be holding his breath. The last thing you want in that situation is for your player to try and force contact. Schofield had done just that. And then Adams signaled a charge.
In the heat of the moment, Kermit Davis Jr. ripped off his coat and flung it, earning a technical foul. Ole Miss fans rained down cups and ice onto the floor. It was not a pretty scene. Williams made one of two free throws to make the final margin two points.
Davis later apologized for throwing his coat and said it was a close call and he would have to look at the tape. “Pat Adams is an excellent official,” Davis said. When Davis does look at it, he will see that it was a charge – a bang-bang play that Adams got right.
It was a game of spurts. Tennessee went up 8-0 at the outset. The Rebels led at half. Tennessee spurted again to begin the second half. Ole Miss fought back to take the lead into the final minute.
It was a thrilling, well-played game between one possibly great team and another really good one.
Afterward, several mostly national reporters still wanted to talk about Saturday’s controversy when several Rebels knelt for the national anthem before a game with Georgia.
Davis, the coach, reiterated that it was a one-time thing and that he stood behind his players. Terence Davis and Bruce Stevens, who both played splendidly against Tennessee, said the same.
Someone asked if what had happened last week had any divisive effect on the Rebels or made it harder to focus.
Kermit Davis forced a smile, shook his head and said. “You couldn’t play the way we played.”