Ole Miss has been tested early this year. Coming off a tight victory over UT-Martin, the Rebels were taken to the wire by the UMass Minutemen, winning on a tip-in from Sebastian Saiz as time expired.
Ole Miss set the tone early, jumping out to a 14-9 lead. Following the theme of last week, junior guard Deandre Burnett picked up two fouls in the first two minutes, sidelining him for much of the first half. It was a physical game as each team entered the bonus by the 11-minute mark of the opening half.
Saiz, who was limited to 17 minutes in the season opener because of aforementioned foul trouble, came out of the gate hungry. He led Ole Miss with six quick points out of the gate, surpassing his opening-night total of five in his first five minutes of action.
In another bright spot, transfer guard Cullen Neal looked exceptional in the first half, leading the team in scoring with 12 points. In addition to the 12 points and three long-balls, Neal handled most of the point guard duties, leading the Rebels through the Minutemen pressure and getting them set on offense. He only had one first-half turnover.
After the Ole Miss lead ballooned to nine with 10 minutes left, the Minutemen controlled the rest of the half, closing on a 29-12 run and taking a 48-40 lead into the intermission. The run was highlighted by some excellent guard play from junior guard Donte Clark and freshman guard DeJon Jarreau. They combined for 34 of the UMass 48 points in the first half, including going a collective 6-11 from deep. As a team, UMass shot 9-18 from three in the first half, compared to just 4-11 for the Rebels.
The Rebels came out of the gate firing, cutting the lead to two in the first minute and a half of action. Sophomore guard Terence Davis, who surprised in last Friday’s season debut with 19 points on 9-13 shooting, ignited the Rebel offense in the second half. He scored on a nifty baseline drive and quick three in consecutive possessions, prompting UMass Coach Derek Kellogg to call timeout.
The Minutemen settled in, though, continuing to knock down threes and play stout defense. After trading buckets for about eight minutes, the UMass pressure turned defense into offense, and they took an 80-74 lead with 7:30 to play.
“It just looked like we weren’t comfortable dribbling the ball. We weren’t aggressive,” Ole Miss Head Coach Andy Kennedy said.
The UMass full-court pressure got to the Rebel ball handlers a little more in the second half, causing four turnovers. And when it wasn’t causing turnovers, it was at least giving Ole Miss discomfort. For the majority of the second half, the Rebel offense wasn’t able to get set and run its plays until deeper into the shot clock.
With just 3:40 left to play, the Minutemen lead was 88-79. After some costly Minutemen turnovers and some clutch shooting down the stretch from Burnett, the game was tied at 88 with 35 seconds left.
After an odd turn of events and two quick turnovers, the Rebels had the ball with 31.9 seconds left on the clock. Holding until about seven seconds left, the transfer guard took a screen to the hole. Burnett’s floater rimmed out with three seconds left, but Sebastian Saiz cleaned it up, tipping in the game-winner with less than three seconds left.
“(Burnett) did exactly what I wanted him to do. Downhill to his right, he just missed it,” Saiz said.
“Sebaz had a tremendous game,” Kennedy said. “He stepped up big for us when we were struggling across the board.”
Saiz’ game-winner was the icing on the cake in a game where he put up big numbers. The senior finished with a career-high 19 boards in addition to his 22 points.
Kennedy acknowledged the early success but still has questions regarding his squad’s toughness and grit in the first two contests.
“We’re getting on the plane 2-0. This gives us a chance to reset ourselves and see who we are as a team. I don’t know about you, but I see a team that’s much grittier, much tougher than what I’m seeing in these games,” Kennedy said.
Let’s hope the Rebels can harness that grit. They’ll need it as they travel Wednesday to compete in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands.