Sweat seeped through Kermit Davis’ dress shirt as he paced back in forth in the game’s final seconds, brimming with emotion and exasperated at the ineptitude of the officiating in what was an otherwise high-level college basketball game with a lot on the line in late February.
Ole Miss lost 73-71 to Tennessee on Wednesday night in a game that brought a lot more than perspiration out of the first year head coach and his team as it tries to punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament, and complete the most drastic single-season turnaround in program history.
“It was a great environment,” Kermit Davis said. “Hats off to Tennessee. They made a tough shot at the end. Everyone is heartbroken in that locker room. We have to come back, put it away and get ready for Arkansas on Saturday.”
The heartache was brought out by how the game’s waning minutes unfolded. Ole Miss led 71-70 with 18 seconds left and Breein Tyree headed to the free throw line for a one-and-one. The team couldn’t have felt more sure-handed with the setting. Tyree is one of the best free throw shooters in the SEC. The game hung in the balance. The Rebels were a handful of seconds from upsetting the fifth ranked team in the country and locking up its bid to the NCAA Tournament in March.
Tyree’s free throw clanged off the front of the rim and Admiral Schofield snared the rebound. In a game in which Ole Miss did a masterful job of not gifting Tennessee extra possessions — the Rebels turned it over 10 times and gave up only four offensive rebounds — the Vols were given a breath of life.
The ball was put into the hands of Tennessee’s best player, Grant Williams, who drove down the lane to his left and made a layup off the glass through contact to give the Vols a lead with four seconds left.
“(Breein) is heartbroken,” Kermit Davis said. “We have some great free throw shooters and he is one of the top four in the SEC. We ran a set play to get him the ball on the inbound pass and him get fouled. He got open and we were going to call timeout if he made both, which is what we all anticipated.”
It is the second consecutive game Tyree has missed the front end of a one-and-one that would’ve helped salt away a game. He missed one in the final seconds of Ole Miss’ win over Georgia last Saturday, an occurrence that didn’t prove costly thanks to the Rebels securing line more defensive stop to seal the game. Tyree entered the game as an 83 percent free throw shooter. Perhaps its sheer misfortune and happenstance. Ole Miss surely hopes it is nothing more.
Desperation set in after Williams’ layup fell through the net. Devontae Shuler raced the basketball up the floor and let a 30-footer fly as Ole Miss gasped its final breath. The shot didn’t go in, but Schofield in inexplicably slid in front of Shuler as he leapt up for the shot. A charge was called instead of a block, making the result of the shot moot and lifting Kermit Davis to his boiling point. He threw his blazer on the floor in anger, and perhaps a bit of disbelief. He was assessed a technical, though it didn’t matter much as Tennessee had the game firmly in hand with only one second left on the clock. The play from Schofield was unnecessary, even if it worked Tennessee’s favor. For Ole Miss, it acted as the final nail in its coffin
“Devontae went straight downhill and got deep into the floor,” Kermit Davis said. “We will look at the tape and see what happened.”
The game was poorly officiated both ways. The swallowed whistles were inconsistent with the plays in which whistles were blown. Both teams were victims of it, though Ole Miss seemingly slid into the crosshairs in some crucial points in the final minutes.
The Rebels were left to cope with a stinging defeat, one the team can ill-afford to let linger into what is now a massive road game at Arkansas on Saturday.
“They just made the plays down the stretch,” Terence Davis said. “Made tough shots. You have to give them credit.”
The sweet irony in all of this is that Ole Miss played one of, if not its best game of the season and looked more like an NCAA Tournament caliber team on this night than perhaps any other. It took a Final Four caliber team down to the wire, and was better than Tennessee for some stretches of the game.
“Ole Miss can play with anyone in the country,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “Nobody will look forward to playing them. That was a Sweet 16, Elite Eight-type game.”
Ole Miss led 39-34 at halftime, in large part due to perhaps its best offensive half of the season with regards to exciting in the half court. The Rebels finished the half 13-of-25 from the field after starting 1-of-8. They got quality looks. Tyree and Terence Davis had 16 points apiece. Bruce Stevens had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Conversely, Ole Miss fared well against one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. Tennessee was 29-of-56 from the field. Williams had 21 points and Lamonte Turner scored 11 points. The Rebels finished even on the glass and defended the perimeter well. The Volunteers were only 3-of-13 from three-point range.
“I thought we defended well,” Kermit Davis said. “They are just efficient. They are going score some points. They are big. They move the ball and shoot it well. I was really proud of how we defended.”
What helped lead to Ole Miss’ demise was a 14-2 run the Vols pieced together to open the second half and take a seven-point lead. Lethargic starts to second halves has been a reoccurring issue for this team and a habit that could prove fatal in March. There all no moral victories in the Southeastern Conference and praise rings hollow in defeat. But with all of that said, the Rebels played well against one of the best teams in college basketball. The result is all that ultimately matters, however, and Ole Miss is still a win away from locking up an NCAA Tournament bid.
Saturday’s road bout with an Arkansas team that just took Kentucky to the wire at Rupp is a monumental game for this team. A win and much of the postseason uncertainty is erased. A loss will have Ole Miss heading into the final week needing to win either a home game against Kentucky or a road game to end the season at Missouri, an undesirable position to be in.
A struggling Arkansas team may have fired its final bullet after an emotional defeat in Lexington, but Ole Miss will have to come out with great energy and urgency to prevent this emotional defeat to Tennessee from factoring into what would be a crippling loss in Fayetteville.
“We have to take the physicality of this game and how we played, and take it into next game,” Terence Davis said. “That starts tomorrow in practice.”
photo credit: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics