It would be hard to fault Ole Miss’ effort against Arkansas on Friday night, but that didn’t necessarily equate to the adequate number of plays it needed to make in order to advance to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament and keep its slim NCAA Tournament hopes alive. The Rebels fell to Arkansas 73-72 in a physical, hard-fought contest that was played at the pace of a foot race.
“Arkansas made the plays down the stretch. We had opportunities, and I was proud our effort. I thought our guys played extremely hard and battled,” Kennedy said. “We put ourselves in position and just couldn’t quite make the plays.”
Ole Miss – tired legs and all – let the three ball fly in this one, and it benefitted it early. The Rebels made seven 3-pointers in the first half and took command of the glass. Sebastian Saiz had eight rebounds in the opening 20 minutes, and the team held a 23-19 rebounding advantage over a big Arkansas team. But the Razorbacks’ length did its damage on the defensive end of the floor and bothered Saiz with it. He had just five shot attempts in the first half and missed all of them. He finished 4-16 from the field, which was good for nine points, along with 17 rebounds.
“I don’t think they were doing anything special. I just couldn’t put the ball inside the basket,” Saiz said. “I don’t know if I was just trying to rush it and trying to make all the plays. I just couldn’t get the ball in.”
Moses Kingsley imposed his 6-foot-1o frame on Saiz and didn’t let him establish anything on the block, and for a team that needed baskets down the stretch, Ole Miss could certainly have used the offense.
The game was tied at 40 at halftime, following an opening half in which Ole Miss led for the majority . The Rebels held leads and closed deficits in a seesaw affair in the final 20 minutes. They grabbed a lead early on in the second half, but the Razorbacks quickly closed the gap. Arkansas led by six at one point, too. But neither team could distance itself as time melted off the clock.
It was a one-point game for basically all of the final four minutes. Arkansas made a couple of hustle plays in those crucial minutes and secured an offensive rebound in the final minute when Ole Miss trailed by one. All of that made a large difference in what was an air-tight game.
“We chart 50-50 balls, and with this team it is really amazing that they’re 20-13. We’ve been terribly under in 50-50 balls,” Kennedy said. “I am sitting here looking at it 14-5 them.”
Ole Miss had its chances at the in the final possession down 73-70, and Deandre Burnett got a clean look at a potential game-tying 3-point shot in the corner, but it didn’t fall.
He had 16 points. Terence Davis led all scorers with 26, and Breein Tyree added 13.
“We came down and took a couple of quick ones. We got a lucky bounce, and I thought Sebas did a great job of getting an offensive rebound,” Kennedy said. “I thought Deandre Burnett had a decent look in the corner.”
The Rebels were close but came up just short – which has really been the story of an up-and-down and often mystifying season. This game mirrored some of Ole Miss’ head-scratching losses in so many ways. The Rebels out-rebounded Arkansas 49-39 and shot a higher percentage from the field.
But Ole Miss also turned the ball over 13 times and went a mere 8-14 from the free-throw line when it came into the game leading the nation in made free throws.
“I tell you one thing that was a little peculiar: We haven’t shot free throws well,” Kennedy said. “We lead the nation in free throws made, and tonight we go 8-14 and they go 20-23. Not only are we not getting there like we normally do, but we are not making them.”
Ole Miss will now have to sit and let this stinging loss fester while it awaits its postseason fate. An NIT bid will likely come, but it is far from certain. The Rebels had a narrow path to the NCAA Tournament in Nashville, Tennessee, and could have easily won this game and advanced. But much like the way this season has gone, victory slipped from their fingers and instead will leave them wondering how and why it happened.
“Just take advantage of the opportunity in front of us,” Davis said. “We let a lot of games get out of our hands in the season, and we’ve just got to take advantage of them.”