Trailing by three points with just over two minutes remaining, Ole Miss senior Terence Davis was no doubt starting to sweat his team’s once-strong NCAA Tournament resume. A road loss to Missouri wouldn’t necessarily doom the Rebels—19-10 Ole Miss boasted strong wins over Auburn and Mississippi State and, just as importantly, no truly bad losses—but an L in the final regular season game would put them in a dicy situation heading into the SEC Tourney.
Davis hadn’t minced words heading into the game.
“We’ve gotta win,” he told the Clarion-Ledger. “I just feel like we’re going on the road, we’ve lost three straight. We’ve gotta get a win right here.”
Ole Miss had looked like an NCAA lock after beating these same Missouri Tigers three weeks earlier. That 10-point win at home moved the Rebels to 8-4 in league play and 18-7 overall. Bracketologists were projecting Ole Miss as a seven or eight seed.
Then came the slide. Ole Miss lost by 15 points on the road at South Carolina and had to rally late to eke out a one-point win over lowly Georgia. They’d been just 4.3 seconds away from a program-shifting, tournament-clinching win over top-10 Tennessee, only to see SEC Player of the Year candidate Grant Williams hit a miraculous floater.
Davis exploded for 25 points on senior night against No. 6 Kentucky, knocking down a three-pointer that pulled Ole Miss within two points in the final 10 seconds. But it wasn’t enough: Kentucky hit its free throws to hand the Rebels another L. Three straight opportunities to lock down a trip to the Big Dance. Three straight losses by a combined seven points.
Now, as Davis watched his teammate K.J. Buffen’s floater clang off the rim with just 2:09 left in the game, it looked like another opportunity was slipping away. Hassled by Missouri’s physical defense all afternoon, Davis, who’d come in averaging over 15 points, was 1-for-9 from the field and had missed all four of this three-point attempts.
He’d come back for his senior season to lead this team. Sure, he wanted to show NBA scouts a more efficient jump shot and better decision making, but he also didn’t want his college career to end with a 12-20 campaign that got longtime head coach Andy Kennedy fired.
“I definitely feel a responsibility with this team,” Davis told reporters before the season. “I feel like with this team I’ve got to take on more of a leadership role and get these guys to do things to the best of their ability.”
No one had given he and his teammates much of a chance. Ole Miss was picked preseason to finish dead last in the conference; this very website predicted just 16 wins. Yes, new head coach Kermit Davis had Terence and a host of young guard talent, but he lacked size down low and depth across the board. Kermit was a solid hire, everyone agreed, but it’d take at least a year to transition from Kennedy’s run-n-gun approach to the more disciplined, defensive scheme that took Middle Tennessee State to the NCAA Tournament three times in five years.
Yet here were the Rebels, on the cusp of the magical 20-win mark. Magical might be an embellishment, but since the conference expanded in 2012, 24 of the 34 SEC teams that won 20 games ahead of Selection Sunday found themselves in the Big Dance. Sitting just inside the top 40 of the NCAA’s rankings with four Group 1 wins (including a clean sweep of No. 17 Auburn and a road shocker against No. 21 Mississippi State), the Rebels would almost certainly punch their ticket with win number 20.
The clock in Columbia ticked down—2:08, 2:07—as Buffen’s wayward shot bounced off the rim and into the mass of red, blue, black and gold below. Buffen skied to bring down his own rebound, then turned to find Davis waiting just beyond the arc. Davis had come back for his senior season to lead this team, but in the season’s pivotal game, he had just two points to his name. A Mizzou defender, scrambling out to meet him, cut awkwardly and crumpled to the floor. Davis saw an open path to the basket.
As Davis sidestepped the downed Missouri defender, 6’10 big man Jeremiah Tilmon noticed his charge and began shuffling across the key to seal off the lane. A step shy of the restricted area, Davis leapt off both feet and hurdled toward the rim. Tilmon arrived at the same time, rising straight up from the floor, gaining altitude as his left hand extended to stuff Ole Miss’ Tourney hopes.
Davis jumped higher.
Yes, a hand on Tilmon’s shoulder gave Davis a little more hang time, but his monstrous dunk showcased everything that’s defined his four years at Ole Miss: jackrabbit hops, the strength of an SEC tight end, the body control of a gymnast. Pure power. Raw athleticism.
Davis’ one-handed jam rattled the rim and pulled his teammates off the bench and onto the court, the magnetism of its unbridled energy overcoming their meager attempts to restrain one another. It shot across Twitter and landed at No. 4 on SportsCenter’s Top 10.
Tilmon was whistled for the foul and Davis knocked down the free throw to complete the three-point play and tie the game at 66. Devontae Shuler, who’d thrown down his own highlight dunk minutes before, sank back-to-back field goals to put the Rebels up for good. Davis iced the game in the final seconds by grabbing a defensive rebound and hitting a pair of free throws.
The win raises Ole Miss to 20-11 and No. 34 in the NCAA rankings. They’ll almost certainly be among the field of 68, regardless of what happens at the SEC Tournament next week.
Perhaps they would have found their way in without the win over Missouri. Perhaps they would have won that game without Davis’ dunk. One thing feels safe to say: Ole Miss wouldn’t be where it is now without Terence Davis.