Kermit Davis released a slight exhale as he sat at the podium following Ole Miss’ 72-71 win over Georgia on Saturday. He cited that victories don’t have to look attractive or come easy in late February, and he’ll take them any way they come as his team barrels down the home stretch of the season.
The Rebels’ win on Saturday was neither, but it serves the same purpose no matter the look as Ole Miss took a significant step towards locking down an NCAA Tournament bid.
“They’re not all pretty,” Kermit Davis said. “You just have to take them and move on.”
This was a game Ole Miss could not afford to lose in its pursuit of an NCAA Tournament bid. Georgia’s NET sat at 117 coming into the game. The Bulldogs entered 1-12 in SEC play and had lost 11 straight conference games. It would’ve been the first blemish to a fairly clean resumé. Early on, Ole Miss looked like it had extinguished any potential danger as it led by 10 at halftime, but Georgia issued a punch coming out of the halftime locker room that left the Rebels dazed and scrambling until the final second. The Bulldogs opened the half on a 15-3 run to take control of the game and led by as many as five points with 10:54 to play.
“I just didn’t like the feel of our team coming into the second half,” Kermit Davis said. “I didn’t think we had a look of passion and intensity. I talked about it in the timeouts, just being on edge and playing. I thought Georgia came out and hit us hard, but the whole thing was about how we responded.”
Ole Miss was manhandled physically for parts of this game, out-rebounded 34-29 and shot just five free throws to Georgia’s 22 attempts. Nick Claxton was torching Dominik Olejniczak inside. But as has happened so many times this season, the Rebels’ guard play lifted the team through rocky circumstances. Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler made shots down the stretch. Shuler buried a triple with 1:22 left on the clock that broke a 69-69 tie. It was Ole Miss’ final bucket of the game. He had 16 points. Tyree added 17 points on 7-of-17 shooting. Terence Davis scored 13 points.
But the catalyst that steered Ole Miss away from disaster came from the bench.
“D.C. Davis was the key to this win,” Kermit Davis said. “When I put D.C. in, our lead went to eight. He defensive rebounded the ball. He finished possessions. He was unbelievable defending. He played without any mistakes. I thought he was probably the most valuable player.”
D.C. Davis’ entry sparked a 7-0 run that gave the Rebels a 64-56 lead. Georgia refused to wilt, even in the game’s final possession. Ole Miss led 72-71 with 10 seconds left and Tyree headed to the free throw line for a one-and-one. Tyree missed the front end. He grimaced in disgust when the sequence was rehashed in the postgame press conference.
“It is all about winning,” Tyree said. “I had to put it behind me.”
Georgia secured the rebound and called timeout. The Bulldogs plotted a diagram of the shot that would win the game. Ole Miss pondered its defensive strategy, electing to go to its 1-3-1 zone for one final stop. It spawned chaos and resulted in a contested 24-footer from Tyree Crump that fell short and secured the win for Ole Miss.
“A lot of times, late game we have gone to our 1-3-1,” Kermit Davis said. “We met with our staff and I was worried about the match up with Claxton, that is who they had been going to. It is a hard match up for Dom to guard.”
It resulted in a stop, a win and a step closer to earning an NCAA Tournament bid. Ole Miss is now one win away from accomplishing that, a position for no one could’ve foreseen the team being in at this juncture in the season. The Rebels’ positioning with regards to earning a Tournament birth doesn’t dominate their thoughts, but they are certainly aware of what they are on the precipice of doing.
“I haven’t been to The Tournament yet,” Tyree said. “It is something I think about every day. I don’t think that it is a bad thing. Everybody on this team should be thinking about it on a daily basis and trying to figure our best way to The Tournament is and how to get there.”
This win was far from a work of art and Ole Miss nearly put itself in a daunting position with a loss. Kentucky and Tennessee still loom on the schedule, along with road tests at Arkansas and Missouri. The Rebels likely need to win just one of those games to go to the SEC Tournament in Nashville with no work left to be done. A loss would’ve made the path murkier and presented more obstacles. Ole Miss avoiding doing that and is on the doorstep of earning a bid in a season in which it was predicted to finish last in the SEC.
“It is everybody’s goal when you tip it up for the first time, to play in that,” Kermit Davis said. “We don’t harp on it, but it is sure something our guys are striving to get to.”