NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Deandre Burnett rattled home a 3-point ball from the top of the key and ran back down to the defensive end grimacing in pain. The junior guard’s knees were far from 100 percent on Thursday night, but you couldn’t have gathered that from his 23-point performance in Ole Miss’ 86-74 win over Missouri in the second round of the SEC Tournament.
Burnett hit his first six shots of the game and helped the Rebels navigate their way out of a sluggish start in which the rest of the team opened the game missing 12 of their first 15 shots.
“Any time you make your first shot it feels good. All the pain goes out of the way,” Burnett said. “I’m just trying to battle through it and play hard for my team. That was pretty much my mindset.”
Ole Miss came to Nashville with its NCAA Tournament hopes on life support and with a little bit of momentum. The Rebels are peaking when it counts, closing out the regular season with a 75-70 victory over South Carolina. Andy Kennedy had hoped that his team would use that momentum to make a run in a building his program had a history with. His 2013 team won an SEC Championship in Bridgestone Arena, and his 2017 bunch will likely need to do the same if it wishes to earn a bid to the Big Dance. Four games in four nights is a tall task, but Kennedy and his group are taking it one step at a time.
The Rebels made quick work of Mizzou in the first leg of their postseason journey. Sebastian Saiz had a double-double at halftime with 12 points and 11 boards. He finished with 14 points and 16 rebounds. The Tigers made six of their first 11 3-point shots, and it was primarily why Ole Miss had trouble distancing itself, even with Burnett’s early explosion.
“I just think the fact that we were putting a lot of pressure on them, they got a little fatigued,” Kennedy said. “They went to that zone, and then at the end of that zone they were going man-to-man and confused us a little bit early with it. But then we went downhill until TD (Terence Davis) made a couple of huge plays.”
Davis had 19 points on the night.
But the Rebels took a 46-36 lead into halftime and really never looked over their shoulder after that. Breein Tyree had eight quick points to begin the second half, and the lead quickly ballooned to 16 as Missouri began to lose its composure with a pair of technical fouls – one on head coach Kim Anderson and the other on Russell Woods. It was the end of a frustrating year for the Tigers and a step up the ladder for the Rebels. But there are many more rungs for this team to climb if it wishes to claw back into the NCAA Tournament conversation.
“Really, we are just trying to win two games in two days right now, and the rest will take care of itself,” Kennedy said. “The first one is always the most difficult.”
Ole Miss’ reward for victory is a date with Arkansas on Friday night in the quarterfinals, a team that beat the Rebels handily in their regular season matchup in Fayetteville. Arkansas likes to play fast and Ole Miss will have to adjust if it wishes to have better luck this time around.
“Transition and getting back,” Burnett said. “Every time we made a shot or missed a shot, they would beat us in transition, so we’ve just got to get back in transition.”
A healthy Burnett wouldn’t hurt, either. The junior had icepacks on his knee in the postgame press conference. But Kennedy had faith that his guard would be available on Friday.
“I think he will be OK,” Kennedy said. “He obviously couldn’t play in our last outing. Our medical staff did a good job doing whatever they could. This is something that will have to be evaluated at the end of the season, which is thankfully not tonight. He is a warrior.”
Tipoff is set for 8 p.m.