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Ole Miss holds off late Murray State comeback, 78-73

Things were very much in hand, until they weren’t.

NCAA Basketball: Memphis at Mississippi Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Murray State fought tooth and nail with Ole Miss in Oxford Thursday night and staged a rager of a late comeback, but the Basketbears held on to grab a much needed 78-73 win. Deandre Burnett led all Rebel scorers with 27 points, and Sebastian Saiz netted yet another double-double to the tune of 15 points and 15 boards.

The night’s proceedings commenced in tight fashion, with neither the Rebs nor Racers able to build out to a substantial lead in the first 10 minutes. Terence Davis and Cullen Neal led Ole Miss early with nine and six points, respectively, and the defense’s inability to shut the backdoor continually allowed Murray State to hang around in the early going. The Rebs held a 24-21 advantage early on, but it just as well could have gone the other way.

Things finally seemed to gel for the Rebs out of the under-8 timeout as the defense held the Racers scoreless for over six minutes. Still, Ole Miss hit just two field goals in that span and managed with difficulty to stretch the lead to 29-21. With Ole Miss struggling from three-point land throughout the first half, points in the paint and from the gimme stripe prevailed in the opening frame, and a pair of Burnett free throws carried the Basketbears into the locker room with a 43-31 lead at recess.

Andy Kennedy can’t be happy with his team committing five fouls in two minutes to begin the second half, perhaps symptomatic of the team’s noticeable defensive aggression out of the intermission. Despite that, Ole Miss legged out to a 17 point lead at the under-16 break, aided by a pair of lovely strokes by Burnett. The Rebs lengthened that to 64-44 following some more Burnett heroics and timely Racer turnovers, but give Murray State credit for taking this one down to the wire.

Here are three takeaways from Thursday’s win in The Pavilion.

Ole Miss’ perimeter defense was the difference in this game.

Murray State’s Jonathan Stark entered the game shooting around 46 percent from out in the county, but on Thursday he was held to just 2-of-9 shooting from three-point land. Ole Miss forced six turnovers that resulted in 14 points, and they harried the Racers’ shooters all night around the arc.

Sebastian Saiz needs to be a consistent part of the offensive attack.

The big Spaniard’s value to Ole Miss’ offensive (or defensive, for that matter) game plan can’t be overstated. He’s averaging 12 points per game and he offers AK’s scheme something he hasn’t enjoyed much in the past: a scoring big man.

Now yes, Murray State locked him down often enough in the first half with double teams, but there were plenty of possessions that feeding Saiz never seemed to enter the realm of possibility. Further, he twice had the ball outside the arc and, inexplicably, pulled up for three. Having stagnated so much in the first half, Saiz quickly reestablished himself down low and grabbed six quick points to open the second frame. He ended the night with 15 points and the same number of rebounds.

The Rebs still need to close out games against inferior opponents.

Ole Miss still lacks a signature out of conference win this season, but at least AK’s guys haven’t suffered an egregious out of conference loss. Too often Ole Miss fans have watched the hoopmen play down to lesser foes and come away with infuriating losses. It certainly felt like Thursday’s game might hold such possibilities — especially late, when the Racers mounted a furious comeback to cut the lead to four — but the team’s stick-to-itiveness and ability to adjust and improve over 40 minutes was encouraging.

Still, though, Murray State’s late press while down by 14 completely unraveled Ole Miss’ buildup in their own end, to the point that the Racers nabbed a couple of steals and forced a 10-second violation with the game still very much in the balance. In the end, AK and company came away with a hard-fought W, and that’s really all that matters in mid-December.

Ole Miss continues the four-game home stand on Monday, Dec. 19 when Bradley comes to town. Tipoff is at 8 p.m. CT.