Photo credit: Ole Miss Athletics
A week ago, in the moments after a crushing double-overtime defeat to Auburn, Kermit Davis remarked that he felt his team was better than its poor record.
At the time, Ole Miss was 10-10 (1-6), and the manner in which it was defeated that night was reflective of how it arrived at that record — unable to salt away a double-digit lead in the second half.
This week, the Rebels have proved Davis to be prophetic after back-to-back top-100 NET wins, the latest a 68-51 thrashing of Florida on Saturday. It is the first time Ole Miss has won back-to-back top 100 games since beating Auburn and Missouri on February 13 and 16 of last year.
Breein Tyree scored 23 on 9-19 shooting and Devontae Shuler complimented that with 14 of his own. Ole Miss held Florida to 33 percent shooting and turned the Gators over 15 times.
“That is the best we have defended for 40 minutes all year long,” Davis said. “We kept getting stop after stop.”
Ole Miss seized control of this game early with a 20-3 run that spanned seven minutes and led for just under 37 minutes of this game. So often, the Rebels have played well for pieces of a game and built up a double-digit lead like the one they had early on in this one, only to crumble down the stretch. The way Ole Miss defended, coupled with a few key perimeter jump shots from Tyree down the stretch, ensured that didn’t happen. Florida cut the deficit to two early on in the second half, but the Rebels quickly ballooned it back out to 10 and didn’t look back.
“We got some quality stops defensively,” Shuler said. “I feel like we have a good chance to keep this going and get some quality wins.”
Shuler has found rhythm offensively over the last couple of weeks. He’s averaging 19 points per game over his last four and is providing the supplementary scoring behind Tyree that this club has lacked for the majority of this season. Shuler’s shot selection has been better and he is driving to the rim more often, and doing so with more of a purpose.
“It’s just me being more aggressive and attacking the rim a lot,” Shuler said. “It opens up gaps for Breein and takes pressure off of him too. That is really what my focus is. I know I can get my shot off. I just want to get to the rim.”
K.J. Buffen added 14 points and snared nine rebounds in a performance that Kermit Davis called the best of Buffen’s young career.
“It was good,” Davis said. “He got some offensive rebounds at critical times. We ran some sets for him and he finished around the goal. I just thought he, Khadim (Sy) and Blake (Hinson) all attacked. But I was really proud of K.J.”
The sophomore played 38 minutes and has done a better job of staying out of foul trouble lately, something that plagued him for a good portion of this season and forced him to sit for long stretches, to the detriment of the team.
As good as Tyree was offensively, his greatest value came on the other end. He held Florida guard Andrew Nembhard to five points on 2-9 shooting. Tyree welcomed the challenge of defending the Gators’ talented guard and was up to the task. Nembhard isn’t Florida’s leading scorer. That title belongs to Kerry Blackshear. But Nembhard gets others involved and is the straw that stirs the proverbial drink on the offensive end.
This was a quality win for Ole Miss and this group is beginning to play a better brand of basketball. Davis challenged his team this week to look forward, to focus on what is ahead rather than agonize over its previous defeats. The team’s goal is to win every game in the month of February and is off to a good start with its first 2-0 week of the SEC season.
“We didn’t look like or feel like one-and-whatever team,” Davis said. “But we were one. You have to come in our gym every day and come in our locker room and see how we go about our business. I get a feel for our team I practice. We have totally shifted to trying to win the month of February. I think our guys have bought into that.”
The Rebels close out a three-game homestead on Tuesday with a Mississippi State team that is currently playing as well as anyone in the SEC, led by SEC Player of the Year candidate with Reggie Perry.
Tipoff on Tuesday is slated for 6 P.M.