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Lethargic defensive effort nets another loss for Ole Miss and work left to be done

The final play was emblematic of the performance. Ole Miss’ 74-73 loss to Arkansas was a turnover-riddled mess that leaves it coping with an 0-2 week in early March, trying to avoid wilting before the summit as it chases an at-large birth to the NCAA Tournament.

Holding a 73-70 lead with 1:07 left in the game, after Breein Tyree banked in a mid-range jumper, things quickly went awry in for the Ole Miss in the game’s waning moments. It is the second time in a week this has occurred. Arkansas scored on a lob at the rim. Jalen Harris served one up to a wide open Daniel Gafford to cut the lead to just one with 40 seconds left.

Breein Tyree turned the ball over on the next possession. The ball was poked loose and a scrum of bodies it the floor to gain control of the basketball as the game hung in the balance. For as many good things as Ole Miss did on the offensive end t it was usually followed by a fatal mistake, much like the back-to-back sequences from Tyree ended in a basket and a turnover.

It was ruled a jump ball and the Razorbacks held the arrow. After a timeout, Arkansas ran a play to get the ball to Gafford on the right block. Gafford had 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting. He’d blistered the Rebels inside, particularly when guarded by Dominik Olejniczak, who was the Rebels’ only option in the final minutes after Bruce Stevens fouled out with just over three minutes left. Gafford was doubled teamed before he received the basketball. Ole Miss defended that portion of the action well. Where things came unglued was allowing Harris an open driving lane to the rim just left of the top of the key. Harris lofted the ball over Dominik Olekniczak and off the top of the glass for the game’s deciding basket, giving the Hogs a 74-73 lead.

With 5.9 seconds remaining, Kermit Davis called timeout. There was ample time to get one more shot off. The Rebels have been a good team with regards to half court offense this season, particularly late in games. The 15 turnovers on the day weren’t indicative of that and the 16th one shortly after breaking the timeout was the fatal one.

Breein Tyree inbounded the ball to Olejniczak. The design of the play was to hand the basketball back to Tyree with his momentum heading towards the rim instead of away from his own basket. Olejniczak was unable to execute the handoff and panicked shortly after, throwing the ball directly to Arkansas forward Gabe Osabuohein to effectively end the game.

“We had a set play we had run a lot,” Kermit Davis said. “For some reason, my big center doesn’t the hand the ball off. Give Arkansas credit.”

Dispersing the blame isn’t as clear as the end result. Arkansas defended the play well. Harris denied Tyree the basketball and was in nearly perfect position, wedged between Tyree and Olejniczak. Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said after the game they put Harris on Tyree for that exact reason — to make sure he didn’t catch the basketball. A handoff looked like a borderline unreasonable ask. Still, Kermit Davis was mystified at the indecisiveness from Olejniczak.

“We have been running for a while, getting it to your guard going 100 mph down the court,” Kermit Davis said. “We have been running that for a long time. It is the first time in history I have a guy not hand it to him. It is what it is. I take full responsibility for it.”

Place the blame where you will on the final play. Whether Olejniczak did indeed falter or if his coach put him in a bad position given both his skillset or the way the play was guarded, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The play was representative of how Ole Miss performed in this game, but was far from the sole cause. Arkansas shot 55 percent in the second half. Mason Jones was 7-of-10 from three-point range and was still frequently left open both in transition and the half court. The defensive ineptitude and carelessness with the basketball on the offensive end are what created this result.

“It is effort and toughness,” Kermit Davis said. “It is the same things schematically that we have done. We are fighting it in practice. We don’t have a physical presence and toughness.”

Kermit Davis didn’t cite effort in practice without tangible evidence. D.C. Davis started this game in place of senior, preseason All-SEC guard Terence Davis because of the way he practice leading up to the game. D.C. Davis started the second half in place of Devontae Shuler because of the same reason.

“Devontae came out with zero energy in the first half and wouldn’t guard,” Kermit Davis said.

The last defensive trip was cited as well to back up the concern about effort. How did Harris get that open?

“Someone had to get hit on a screen and stop for him to get that open,” Kermit Davis said. “That is what we have been doing. We are hoping people miss and won’t make people miss.”
It is evident that the first-year head coach is somewhat baffled at effort being the reason Ole Miss lost a close game in early March with its season on the line. Make no mistake, Kermit Davis is accurate in making that claim. Whether it was the shooting percentage, the last sequence or the 16 turnovers, the evidence of the effort level being insufficient is there.

“We shoot 53 percent in the second half and lose,” Kermit Davis said. “For a team fighting for its life, that is not very good. We couldn’t get stops at the end.”

In a couple of weeks, if the Rebels are in fact looking back at the season with regret clouding their memory, this loss will torment them more than others. Ole Miss had a chance to all but punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament with a win Saturday over an Arkansas team that came into the game losers of six in a row, and potentially had fired its final bullet in the chamber after a crushing last-second defeat to Kentucky in Rupp Arena. Instead of preying on the Razorbacks’ vulnerability, the Rebels afforded them opportunity by being lethargic.

“Like Coach said, it was all in the way we practiced,” Tyree said. “Yesterday was not a good practice. That has everything to do with how we played. It is very frustrating. I am a part of the team and I am disappointed in myself.”

This loss, on the surface, isn’t a death knell, but it surely puts the Rebels in a precariousness position heading into the season’s final week. With a home game against Kentucky and a road game at Missouri left on the schedule, their way into the NCAA Tournament will be no easy task. A win would’ve put Ole Miss on the precipice of locking down an at-large bid. The loss will now require more work to be done, a steeper climb. There is one week left in the season. No one expected the Rebels to be in this position this late in the year, and the fact that they have given themselves a chance to play their way into the Big Dance is an accomplishment in and of itself.

Whether or not their dream comes to fruition remains to be seen, but if it doesn’t and lack of effort is the reason, it will come with a sour taste that will linger for a good while.

“We have to go through practice and get ready for a great Kentucky team,” Kermit Davis said. “We have been in two one-possession games the last two games. We could easily be sitting here 21-8. It is the same team, so we still have the same things we have to work on. We did a lot of good things today too. It is just life in the SEC. We have to turn back around tomorrow.”

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