OXFORD – There are moments – and then there are moments. This was a most memorable MOMENT: Ole Miss had just overcome a 14-point first half deficit on the way to whipping Mississippi State 83-58 here Tuesday night. Breein Tyree had just scored a career-high 40 points, 27 in a dazzling second half performance.
With just under a minute remaining, Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis, Jr., sent in a sub for Tyree. The announced crowd of 8,009 at The Pavilion stood one more time to applaud, scream, high-five anybody they could reach, and, in general, go berserk.
And then, in the press area, an NBA scout, seated next to this writer, stood and joined in the celebration of such a remarkable performance, smiling and clapping enthusiastically. Most of the crowd sat back down before he did.
Tyree’s performance was that scintillating, that amazing. When he wasn’t swishing a 25-foot 3-pointer, he was driving around and through the Bulldogs and somehow scoring at the rim with people hanging all over him. He outscored Mississippi State 27-24 in the second half is all he did.
Davis, who has coached in college basketball for 37 years, was asked if he had ever had a player take over a game as Tyree just had.
“On a team I coached?” Davis asked. “No, I don’t think I ever had anyone do that, certainly not a guard…. Breein scored at every level.”
He did. He scored treys and he scored dunks. He scored from mid-range and he got to the foul line where he made 10 of 11.
You hear announcers talk all the time about players being “in a zone.”
Was that a zone you were in, Breein?
“Yes sir, that was a zone right there,” he answered, matter-of-factly. “That’s what it was. That was a zone.”
There was another zone at work Tuesday night. That was Ole Miss’s 1-3-1 zone defense that throttled the Bulldogs, especially in the second half. It caused State to hit only 7 of 23 shots from the floor, 0 of 6 from three-point range. It forced 17 turnovers, which the Rebels converted into 27 points in a 25-point victory.
“The zone definitely gave us trouble,” State’s Robert Woodward II would say. “It slowed us down.”
Asked what makes the Ole Miss zone defense so effective, State coach Ben Howland responded, “Part of it is you just don’t see teams playing that defense very often. In preparation, it’s hard to simulate and get your players to play it as well as they do. The double teams really bothered us.”
One other huge factor was Ole Miss post player Khadim Sy, the long-limbed 6-foot, 10-inch junior from Dakar, Senegal, who played up to his size against the Bulldogs. In fact, he kept the Rebels in the game in the first half when State blew out to a 14-point lead. Sy scored 14 of his 18 points in that first half. Overall, he also contributed eight rebounds and a blocked shot before fouling out. In short, he played the way Davis thought he would play on a nightly basis when he recruited him. He was especially effective when Ole Miss cut the 14-point State lead down to one at halftime.
“Hey, he was the top junior college big man in the country,” Davis said. “He has really played better lately. He’s maturing in practice, working harder. What you saw tonight is what we expected out of him.”
Still, the night belonged to Tyree, the reigning SEC Player of the Week, and the leading active scorer in the SEC. In his last three games, all Rebel victories, Tyree has gone for 38, 23 and now 40 points. That’s 101 points in three games or nearly 34 per.
Davis described it this way: “Breein is playing downhill. He’s playing so fast and he’s got that great bounce at the rim. He goes up there strong.”
“Give Tyree credit,” Howland said. “He made tough shots with people hanging on him.”
In the process, Tyree punched State’s NCAA Tournament hopes in the gut. Bracket predictors vary on where State stands but all said the Bulldogs were either barely in or barely out going into the game. The 27-point loss to an arch-rival hurts – badly.
“There’s still a lot of basketball left to play,” Howland said. “We can’t let this loss, as disappointing as it is, beat us twice.”
Meanwhile, Davis and Tyree said, in effect: Don’t count us out.
The Rebels are now 13-11 overall and 4-7 in the SEC, a long shot at best.
“We’re still playing for the post-season,” Tyree said.
“You’re never out of it in the SEC,” Davis said. “I love the way we are playing. And look what an opportunity we have Saturday.”
That would be Kentucky at Kentucky. Tyree would probably need to go for 50. Sy would have to play even bigger.
“Just don’t count us out,” Tyree said, and who was going to dispute him on this night.