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Rebels overmatched in loss to Kentucky, setting up crucial road game at Missouri

Moments after Ole Miss’ 80-76 loss to Kentucky on Tuesday night, Terence Davis was asked to reflect on the emotions of senior night and playing is final home game inside The Pavilion.

He dropped his head down, seemingly struggling to find words to describe what he was feeling. It was a bittersweet moment for Davis’ who is in the twilight hours of the final and most successful season of his career.

“It still hasn’t really hit me,” Davis said. “After the game, I went around and shook a few to the fans’ hands one last time. This place is special. The Pavilion is amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a better four years.”

The emotion was raw and real. Ole Miss rode that high for as long as it could against the Wildcats, but eventually proved to be overmatched by a team that is gunning for a one seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Rebels led 39-38 at halftime. Davis scored 15 first half points. His fellow senior, Bruce Stevens, played as hard as he has played all year on the defensive end of the floor.

“They played with unbelievable energy to start the game,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “My hope was: please tell me they can’t do this for 40 minutes. They were cutting, flying and running. They had 10 points in transition and they weren’t breakouts. We were all running back and their guy just out ran past us and shot a lay up.”

On the heels of back-to-back frustrating defeats to Tennessee and Arkansas, the latter of which saw their effort being called into question by Kermit Davis, Ole Miss brought it from the opening jump. It stood toe-to-toe with the Wildcats in the first half. The Rebels were aided by Kentucky forward P.J. Washington being saddled with foul trouble and sitting the majority of the last 11 minutes of the half.

The Rebels have lost three in a row now and have led at halftime in all three. In two of those games — the losses to Tennessee and this one to Kentucky — they were simply over matched physically. But Ole Miss was very much in all three of the games until the final minute.

“We really are about three possessions away from winning about eight of nine,” Kermit Davis said. “We still have our same warts and our same good things. We just have to keep plugging away.”

Ole Miss tried its best to right the ship and rectify its recent struggles in close games, but it was an arduous task once Washington returned to the floor. Kentucky fed him the ball in the high post and on the low block, knowing the Rebels didn’t have much of an answer. Washington scored all 13 of his points in the second half.

Keldon Johnson scored 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting. The Wildcats shot 55 percent from the floor and poured in 34 paint points. They got good looks around the rim and exploited Ole Miss with their length.

“I told (Washington) at halftime ‘We are throwing it to you every time. Be who you are supposed to be,’” Calipari said. “And he was.”

Stevens and Dominik Olejniczak did their best to neutralize Kentucky and prevent it from getting clean looks near the rim, but the Wildcats were too long and athletic.

“Bruce’s energy level is so much better and it is really helping us,” Kermit Davis said. “We have to keep him going. We had great energy. Kentucky is just good. They are a tough cover.”

The three losses have frustrated the team because it was on the precipice of a victory each time, only to fall short. The reasons vary. The first two, Ole Miss couldn’t get stops down the stretch. In this game, it was the opposite in some respects. The Rebels struggled to score the basketball down the stretch. As efficient as Kentucky was offensively, it didn’t have a field goal in the final three minutes of the game. Ole Miss’ shot selection was questionable and its offense a bit stagnant.

“We just have to make smarter plays down the stretch,” Terence Davis said. “Just make winning plays.”

So, where does Ole Miss sit? Losers of three in a row with one regular season game left at Missouri on Saturday, the Rebels are 19-11 (9-8). There is much debate as to whether this team has done enough to lock up an NCAA Tournament bid, or if there is more work left to be done. A win on Saturday would likely eliminate most of the remaining uncertainty. Ole Miss is listed as an 11-seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology. A win Saturday and it should feel good about its chances at an at-large bid. A loss and the Rebels will have to win a game or two in the SEC Tournament. Even with a win on Saturday, winning one game in Nashville wouldn’t hurt.

Kermit Davis balked at calling Saturday a must-win. But make no mistake about it: Saturday is a must win if this team wishes to make the Big Dance.

“I think these are all NCAA Tournament play-in games,” Kermit Davis said. “Do I think we are an NCAA Tournament team? I do. Do I think we pass the eye test? No question about it. There is no doubt it is a really big game.”

photo credit: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics

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