Photo credit: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics
MEMPHIS, TENN — This game had the both physicality of a late-February SEC clash and the atmosphere to accompany it.
Ole Miss was pummeled around the rim in an 87-86 loss at Memphis inside a raucous FedEx Forum on Saturday afternoon. The Rebels were outscored 52-20 in the paint. Tigers forwards D.J. Jeffries and Precious Achiuwa combined for 48 points and 15 rebounds. Achuiwa scored 25 and pulled 11 boards himself. He was a problem on the glass for an Ole Miss front court that failed its first major test and spent most of the afternoon saddled with foul trouble.
Khadim Sy played just four minutes in the first half after picking up two quick fouls. It put Kermit Davis in a bind. Sammy Hunter was asked to play increased minutes, and a small-ball lineup of Blake Hinson and K.J. Buffen at the four and five slots didn’t provide enough rim protection. Memphis was 27-48 on two-point baskets, many were layups and dunks.
“They killed us around the goal,” Davis said. “Driving it, offensive rebounding. We got in deep foul trouble. We need Sy on the floor. We fought some foul trouble, but fought through it. Just couldn’t make a play at the end.”
Ole Miss hung in there without Sy, thanks to 13 first-half points from Buffen and 12 from Breein Tyree. Memphis took a 31-28 lead with five minutes minutes left in the first half and never trailed again. The Tigers closed the half on a 7-0 run and led 45-38. The game quickly unraveled for Buffen early in the second half. He fouled three times less than six minutes fouled out with over 14 minutes to go. In that time, Memphis stretched its lead out to as large as 16 with 11 minutes go in the game. Foul trouble has been a troubling theme for Buffen through five games. He picks up far too many ill-advised fouls away from the rim.
“K.J. cannot say out of foul trouble,” Davis said. “He’s done it in mid-major games. He did it tonight. He is our leading rebounder and it is always in about 20 minutes. We have to keep him on the floor.”
Sy mad an impact in the second half with nine points, six rebounds and a pair of assists, but Memphis still had their way with the Rebels inside. Ole Miss had zero second chance points in the second half despite seven offensive rebounds and allowed 24 points in the paint. Achiuwa scored the Tigers’ first seven out of halftime. He and Jeffries scored 25 of Memphis’ 42 second-half points.
As the front-court was bogged down by foul trouble, the Rebel guards were bothered a bit by Memphis’ pressure on the perimeter and played poor transition defense. Devontae Shuler was 3-11 from the field for nine points and Breein Tyree was 7-20 after making three of his first four shots to start the game. The two combined for nine turnovers. Ole Miss settled for a lot of perimeter jump shots and shied away from driving the basketball to the rim for extended periods of the game. It contributed to their 29-66 mark from the field.
“We settled,” Davis said. “The ball didn’t move and we didn’t drive the ball. That has been an achilles heel of ours, even against teams we are better than and in games we have won by 25. The ball has to move and we have to get more paint touches and ball movement. We settled for a period of time. We drove at the end and got paint scores.”
Perhaps where the guards faltered the most was allowing Memphis to leak out in transition and get easy baskets. The Tigers had 20 fast break points and flew past Ole Miss down the floor. It’s uncharacteristic of this team with two veteran guards and allowed the Tigers to generate offense without having to run half-court sets.
“I told Breein and Devontae, nobody spends more time in college basketball on defensive transition than we do,” Davis said. “We do it every single day. It’s such an emphasis. When we won games on the road in our league last year, we made them run half-court offense. In that period of time, when (Memphis) stretched it out, we didn’t. They threw balls by us. We didn’t get the hole covered and make them run half-court offense. We broke down.”
The Rebels were more aggressive at the rim in the closing minutes as they shaved a 16-point deficit to one. Despite it all, Ole Miss chipped away at the lead and gave itself a chance with Buffen on the bench, a limited Hinson in his first game back and Sy playing with four fouls down the stretch. The Rebels went on an 11-2 run after going down 16 points, cut it to five with two minutes left and had a chance to send the game into over time, trailing 85-82 with eight seconds left and in possession of the basketball. Penny Hardaway elected to foul to prevent Ole Miss from shooting a three. Tyree was fouled just before he went up for a three-point shot. It was a close to being a shooting foul, but was called on the floor.
“I was trying to get to the rim and I heard them say ‘foul, foul, foul,’ so I went up to shoot it,” Tyree said. “It is the referee’s decision and is just part of the game.”
Ole Miss was beaten up inside in this game, a revamped front-court failed its first major test. But in the end, despite the foul trouble and defensive lapses, the Rebels had a chance to beat a ranked team on the road in the final minute. It was a useful November measuring stick. Up next is a trip to Brooklyn to play Penn State and either Syracuse or Oklahoma State after that as the team hits the teeth of its non-conference schedule.
“This was an SEC road game,” Davis said. “That’s all it was, two good teams.”