Tuesday night’s quarterfinal matchup with Georgia Tech was microcosmic of the 2016-2017 campaign for the Rebels. Coming into the game, Ole Miss had built considerable momentum with upset victories over Monmouth and Syracuse, beating both on their respective home courts. With an opportunity to capitalize on that momentum, in a nationally televised game, the Rebels faltered once again.
The atmosphere Tuesday night was electric; The Pavilion was filled to near capacity, rivaling only the arena’s inaugural night January 2016. Because the contest was part of postseason play, student ID tickets weren’t available. Perhaps understanding the disruptive impact an engaged crowd can have, head coach Andy Kennedy purchased tickets for the first 1,300 students who showed up for the game.
“What a great crowd, what great energy. Props to the fans for showing out,” Kennedy said. “People that say Ole Miss doesn’t care about basketball are crazy.”
Ole Miss came out of the gate sloppy, committing turnovers indicative of a team that wasn’t ready to play. Georgia Tech opened in a suffocating 1-3-1 three quarter court defense, stymieing the Rebels offense. The Yellow Jackets defense is among the stingiest in the nation, only giving up 66 points a night on average.
At the 11-minute media timeout, Georgia Tech led 26-13, largely because of an 11-0 advantage in fast break opportunity. The first-half lead ballooned briefly to 15, but a quick 7-0 run narrowed the gap, as Georgia Tech took a 39-30 lead into intermission.
“I thought it was one of the worst execution games we’ve had all season,” Kennedy said. “We don’t have any ball getters – we just don’t get the ball.”
Kennedy cited the 13-6 deficit on loose balls as a potential reason for defeat.
Defensively, the Rebels’ hodgepodge of schemes manifested itself on the court Tuesday night. Kennedy’s tendency to switch defenses has largely kept opposing offenses on their toes all season long. The head-scratching part about Kennedy’s defensive ideology is his propensity, or lack thereof, to switch out of a defense – even if it’s working. As mentioned, the 1-3-1 wreaked havoc on the GT offense, and it did again to start the second half. Strangely enough, though, Ole Miss switched back into man, giving up a 6-0 run.
Ole Miss spent the first 14 minutes of the second half chipping away at the Georgia Tech lead, cutting it to five with just under six to play. A Cullen Neal offensive outburst and poster jam from Terence Davis cut the deficit to 68-64 with just two minutes to play. But four points is the closest the lead would get, as Ole Miss’ season ended at the hands of Georgia Tech – losing 74-66.
The Rebels weren’t able to escape their abysmal shooting performance, finishing at 39 percent from the field. Conversely, Georgia Tech hit 51 percent of its shots, including 17 of 20 from the charity stripe.
“Ben Lammers and Josh Okogie have been tremendous for Georgia Tech this year,” Kennedy said. Lammers finished with 20 points and 8 blocks, and Okogie led all scorers with 26 points. “Georgia Tech is a talented team, and they proved it tonight.”
Georgia Tech will head to the NIT Final Four in Madison Square Garden, as its quest to become the 69th best team in the nation continues.
Despite the loss, there are many silver linings for the Rebels. The dean of SEC basketball garnered yet another 20 win season. Ole Miss, picked to finish ninth in the conference, finished fifth. Kennedy’s Rebels got back in to the postseason, albeit the NIT. The Rebels made a step in the right direction. And in addition to the immediate impact of transfers Deandre Burnett and Neal, Ole Miss found budding stars in Terence Davis and Breein Tyree.
Replacing Sebastian Saiz — one of the most-beloved and successful players in Rebel history — will be tough. But Andy Kennedy is a resilient coach; he’s had to replace the likes of Marshall Henderson, Reggie Buckner and Stefan Moody in recent years, and with seemingly no drop-off.
“I’m proud of a lot of things this group accomplished. We got to 22 wins, got to the post season and won a few post season games,” Kennedy said. “For us, I’m disappointed now, but as I sit back and look at all we went through this season, there’s a whole lot to be pleased with.”
Ole Miss possesses a top 50 recruiting class and the continued development of Burnett, Neal, Tyree and Davis. The loss will leave a bitter taste in the mouth of Rebel hoops, but not for long.