A favorable reaction to its first, albeit small, dose of adversity prompted Kermit Davis to label Ole Miss’ 84-67 win over Arkansas the team’s best of the season.
“We have two top 15 wins and some great wins, but that was probably our best win of the year,” Kermit Davis said. “It is because of how we responded to losing our first league game. I thought our team had two good, physical practices on Thursday and Friday. Bouncing back in this league — and for a new program doing it for the first time — sometimes, it can be hard.”
On the surface, the win elevated the Rebels to 14-3 on the season and 4-1 in a rugged SEC. But beyond that, it further validated Ole Miss’ work a week ago in knocking off a pair of top 15 opponents and sliding into the top 25 rankings for the first time in six years, as well as into the national spotlight.
Coming into the week, Ole Miss was no longer flying beneath anyone’s radar. LSU came into the Pavilion and intimidated the Rebels around the rim en route to a double-digit victory. But that loss wouldn’t necessarily hurt the Rebels much by itself. Where the loss would sting is if its lingering effects contributed to a lethargic outing against the Razorbacks. An 0-2 week would’ve erased the increased margin for error the Rebels afforded themselves a week ago.
Ole Miss made sure that didn’t happen.
“(Kermit Davis) challenged us in the last couple of practices,” junior guard Breein Tyree said. “That gave us energy going into the game. Coming off of a loss, we had a bad taste in our mouth. We knew we could’ve played better against LSU. We just wanted to come out and show the fans we are still here and are still a high-level team.”
Ole Miss led wire-to-wire in this game. It made a conscious effort to get seven-foot center Dominik Olejniczak the basketball early. He scored the game’s first five points and had 13 total on 5-of-7 shooting. Why? That is a fair question considering Arkansas forward Daniel Gafford is a projected lottery pick in the 2019 NBA draft and is a load in the paint at 6-foot-11, 233 pounds.
Part of the answer is the way the Razorbacks guard ball screens. Gafford would either switch, giving the Rebels a mismatch with a smaller player on Olejniczak, or he would hedge the screen out of the fear of what Ole Miss’ guards are capable of doing off screens, leaving Olejniczak open on the roll. Either way Arkansas chose, Ole Miss had an advantage.
“Gafford sometimes switches ball screens, and if he did we felt like we had a mismatch with the perimeter guy and Gafford has to guard the TD or Breein on the switch,” Kermit Davis said. “Then, when he didn’t switch, they were really conscious with trying to hedge with Breein and TD because they are really good off ball screens. Dom would roll and TD did a great job with patience, staying with the long roll and Dom made some really nice shots.”
To Kermit Davis’ point, Terence Davis had seven assists to go along with 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting. Tyree led the team in scoring with 22 points after a rough outing against LSU. Bruce Stevens was 6-of-7 from the field and had 14 points.
Ole Miss led for the entirety and never felt like it was in any serious danger. Arkansas went on an 8-0 run to cut an 11-point halftime deficit to six early in the second half. Kermit Davis burned a 30-second timeout to allow the Rebels to collect themselves and went on a 13-2 run to take control of the game.
“We just lost our energy and Arkansas played so much harder in that four-minute stretch than we did,” Kermit Davis said. “We got it cranked back up. We went to our 1-3-1 zone and got some turnovers. I thought the 1-3-1, for about a six minute period, really changed the rhythm of the game.”
Ole Miss held Gafford to nine points on 2-of-6 shooting, eight below his season average. Gafford is a post player that prefers to take shots above all else and Ole Miss preyed on his reluctancy to pass the basketball out of the post by running double teams at Gafford when he caught the ball. The Rebels generated 13 steals and 17 total Razorback turnovers, frustrating Gafford in the process.
Devontae Shuler did not start this game due to a stress fracture in his foot that has ailed him for the last two weeks. Shuler played 25 minutes, however, and gave the Rebels a defensive spark off the bench. Senior and former walk-on D.C. Davis started in his place and offered a serviceable seven points and four assists.
Kermit Davis said there is still a good chance Shuler starts Tuesday at Alabama and that this will be a feeling out process of sorts based on how Shuler’s injured foot feels. As long as he is able to play in a capacity that allows him to make an impact on the game like he did Saturday, Ole Miss should feel okay about its rotation despite it being thin.
“D.C. guarded well, stayed within himself and took good shots,”Kermit Davis said. “Devontae is still our point guard. I thought D.C. deserved it based on how he has practiced. It wasn’t anything Devontae did or did not do. It was just kind of a gut feeling. He is still our point guard.”
A glance around at how deep the SEC is this season makes it easier to understand why was an important win for the Rebels, as Kermit Davis mentioned. De facto nights off due to an opponents inferiority are nonexistent and multiple-game losing skids are more likely to occur as a result. The Rebels prevented the latter from happening and sit at 4-1 in league play as it heads to Tuscaloosa to face an Alabama team that just took Tennessee to the wire on the road.
“I thought they came out and delivered the first punch,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said. “They delivered that first punch and had us back on our heels. They brought the energy and the effort.”