Busybody Hugh Freeze stopped by the Tad Pad on Wednesday to watch the Rebel roundballers grapple with Texas A&M and in so doing spoil an Aggie six-game winning streak, 69-59. Don't be fooled, however: this game essentially ended at 63-59 before the free-throws algebra took effect with under two minutes to go.
After 10 minutes of getting-to-know-you, Ole Miss found a rhythm astride Stefan Moody, whose 19 points and five assists led the Rebel hoopsters for the night. Jarvis Summers took a double shot of espresso at halftime and contributed seven points, two rebounds, two assists, and two steals in the second half. Fun fact: the 7-2-2-2 is also known as "a Biloxi bankruptcy."
Without a Rebel 13-1 run to open the second half, A&M could've easily stolen this one away. Ole Miss in fact led 50-38 at the 30-minute mark, before Andy Kennedy had to douse a 12-3 Aggie hot streak with timeouts.
Coming into Wednesday's game, Joe Lunardi projected the Rebels as an 11 seed for the NCAA Tournament and this A&M game held much of that Big Dance intensity. Looking down the stretch, here are three areas Ole Miss can focus on as the roundballers grind through February.
1. An opportunistic Rebel squad is a dangerous thing.
Ole Miss caused 16 turnovers tonight, punched out 11 eleven steals and blocked six shots. That is some hard-knock defense if ever there was, and Sebastian Saiz garners the game's defensive superlative with nine rebounds, two blocks, and four steals; oh yeah, your favorite Euro-pop icon also dropped nine physical points in the paint.
In fairness, both teams lost track of things at times, and in his post-game remarks Andy Kennedy found fault with the night's aesthetic virtue, saying:
"It wasn't the aesthetically pleasing game at times, but these are the kind of games you have to win in early February ... You have to grind through them, and when you have a veteran team, you hope they have the maturity to do that, even though they're not on the top of their game."
Who knew AK was a student of Immanuel Kant? In any case, squeaking out turnovers will serve these Rebels well in tournament situations come March, and their fast-break off the pop earned quick twos or punitive free throws all night.
2. Ole Miss' paint presence is coming along, but more is desired.
In case you had forgotten, M.J. Rhett is still a Rebel big man, and his 11 points on three rebounds notched his best performance since the LSU loss. Dwight Coleby divebombed the night with seven points, six rebounds, and two blocks, while Martavious Newby went for five points on eight rebounds. When the large men are clicking, they are damn fun to watch.
As was the case against LSU, however, the Rebels can at times disappear in the low post. In fact, this lack of physicality below the hoop translates to their wings' inability to shed picks on the perimeter, where A&M exploited gaps a number of times. The Rebels' man defense is sticky, granted, but more fluidity and adaptability will become necessary if AK's men want to contain a March Madness six-seed.
On the other side of the ball, the Rebels yet again commanded a solid midcourt offense, and certainly when it counted late, as the Aggies poured on the defensive press to create turnovers that never came. It's good that the roundball men are working out these details now, since they'll appear with irregular regularity at the Big Dance.
3. Let's just savor this one for a moment.
Tonight's win tallies Ole Miss' fourth in a row and snaps the Aggies' six-game streak since January 13th
(sorry). The Rebels' record now sits second overall in the SEC, and it's kinda satisfying that this jump comes against the only other team to take Kentucky to overtime this year, which happens to be A&M's last loss. Coming into the game, the Aggies' RPI ranked no. 32 in the county, and so the Rebels have beaten three top-35 RPI squads this year (Arkansas and Cincinnati were ranked No. 24 and 34, respectively). Although human spark-plug Anthony Perez more or less sat this one out, the Rebel regulars banded together for victory over an Aggie squad also projected as an 11-seed by Lunardi. Coincidence? #TheNetwork? We may never know.
Ole Miss travels to Auburn this Saturday to test their mettle against a duo of dangerous guards. No matter, these Road Warriors love hostile environments.