Many people have questioned why I continue to go to games this season. Last night is exactly why. If you missed it, you missed a game that had a little bit of everything, including an exciting buzzer beater finish.
Ole Miss was a good matchup for us, as they are guard-heavy and not particularly strong in the post. We used the same starting lineup as the Florida game, but with much more success. After being outscored 49-0 before getting on the board in our last 6 games, it was great to get an early 4-1 lead.
We finally gave Releford some help in the first half. Shannon Hale and Nick Jacobs both had excellent games. Ole Miss ran a zone defense almost exclusively, and I loved the way we attacked it with Shannon in the high post and Nick on the low block. Between the high post and pick n pop we ran with Hale, he really made the offense flow in the first half as we were able to take a 12 point lead. We went into halftime with a 7 point lead, that should have been closer to 13 if we could have made some free throws. We shot under 50% from the charity stripe in the first half.
Defensively, we did not press at all, I suspect out of respect for the Rebels guard play. We ran a man to man for much of the night with some zone in the second half. It seemed like Andy Kennedy's game plan was to run Marshall Henderson all over the court and run him through screens so he could get up some 3-point shots. I thought Algie did a great job initially of fighting through the screens and forcing contested shots. When Retin came into the game, he would usually switch with Shannon on the screen. Henderson made his first 3 when Hale was slow to switch, but after that they executed the defensive switch very well and he wasn't able to get squared up before throwing up his wild shots.
Regarding Marshall Henderson, like him or hate him, and I hate him, I think he's a classless white trash punk (which makes him a good fit for Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss in general, now that I think about it), and his rap sheet speaks for itself, the guy is entertaining to watch. He plays with a lot of emotion and energy, not to mention a level of confidence/arrogance/cockiness that I'm not sure I have ever seen. Oddly enough, I think the small crowd actually helped us some in this game. Henderson seems to feed off the negative energy from opposing fans. Before the game in warmups, he was going out of his way to draw attention to himself, repeatedly dunking, dancing around to the pregame music, looking around to the stands, etc. It's almost like he was begging someone to taunt him, but with only about 50 people in the lower rows of the gym at that time, it just wasn't happening. When they took him out of the game, he stood up on the bench yelling directions and coaching his teammates almost the entire time. He probably did more coaching in this game than Andy Kennedy did. I thought he really hurt them with about 2 minutes or so to go in the game, he was clearly upset with his teammates after they turned the ball over in a possession where he didn't get to touch the ball. I just knew he was shooting the next possession no matter what, and predictably, he threw up an air ball with his team down 6.
Back to the good guys, we had a 5 minute scoring drought in the second half that allowed Ole Miss to get back into the game. There were 3 or 4 questionable calls in a row that did not go our way, and I think we allowed that to effect our game a little bit. Given the 4 game losing streak and the way close games have turned out this season, it would have been easy to throw in the towel when Ole Miss went up by 4 with about 5 minutes remaining, but give credit to the guys for not letting that happen. Releford took over the game and simply would not be denied. The outside shots were not falling, and our bigs had some turnovers and missed shots under the basket, so Relly decided he was just going to attack. He found the seams in the Ole Miss zone, opened up by the earlier production of Hale and Jacobs, and took advantage. There was a key "And one" and when he didn't finish, he got to the free throw line, where he was perfect after missing one in the first half. Releford had 14 of the final 16 points, and had the assist on the other one.
We've lost a lot of games this year because we either miss free throws or fail to get rebounds at crucial times, or both. It almost happened again. With a 6 point lead, we gave up a 4 point play when Ole Miss got an offensive rebound on a missed free throw and Henderson knocked down a 3. Hale missed a 3 at the other end, and Releford fouled Summers who made both free throws to tie the game with 12 seconds left, which set up the final shot.
I normally prefer to call a timeout and draw up a set play in these situations, but Coach Grant obviously made the right call in letting them play. We only had one timeout remaining, and with the score tied, it would be nice to carry that timeout into overtime if necessary, not to mention the possibility of not being able to get the ball in and giving Ole Miss a chance to set their defense. We knew Ole Miss was in a basic 2-3 zone, so odds were pretty good we could get a decent look at a long range shot. I've heard some people question the decision to pass it to Cooper with 5 seconds left, but that pass created just enough movement to get Releford a bit of space when he got the ball back. Hale came up to set a screen to Relly's right, and Henderson tried to get in front of it, allowing Relly to take a step to the left and get a good look at the basket. I knew as soon as he let it go that it was going in. I was glad Relly had the confidence to take the shot to win the game, as opposed to driving in hoping to get bailed out with a foul call. I was surprised Kennedy did not use his final timeout with .6 seconds still remaining on the clock.
For those of you who say Coach Grant doesn't care or show enough emotion, I wish you could have seen what I did last night. Coach Grant chewed some ass! From the officials, to Coach Pujol, to the players. He spent the better part of the first timeout of the second half yelling at one of the officials. While I didn't like some of the calls, I do give credit to the ref for walking away before it became necessary to call a technical foul. At one point he turned around and ripped Coach Pujol a new one. I believe he was mad because a few moments earlier Pujol was also complaining to the officials, and Coach Grant was letting him know that was his job. At least, that's what it looked like to me, it could have been about something totally unrelated. During a timeout with around 12 minutes left, Coach Grant really lit into the team after some careless turnovers and bad defensive possessions.
The only real coaching decision that I disagreed with was not giving Jacobs a breather late in the game. Nick Jacobs had a great game offensively, and was adequate on defense for the most part, but he did give up some baskets at the rim in the final 6 minutes. When we were shooting free throws with just under 5 minutes to play, I noticed Nick had his hands on his hips and appeared to be panting like a sheep dog on a July afternoon in Alabama. He was obviously winded. We could have done some offense/defense putting Jimmie Taylor in on defense, or taken Jacobs out at that point and put him back in at the 3:30 mark. Between the media timeouts and Ole Miss calling 2 timeouts, he would have only missed 3 offensive possessions, one minute of playing time, and received about 7 minutes of actual time rest. Regardless, it was a great effort from Jacobs, 18 points and 8 rebounds, I don't expect him to do that against the Jarnell Stokes and Patrick Youngs of the world, but if we can get that kind of consistent effort from him on both ends we are a much better team.
I'm really happy for the players to be able to win a close game like this. Hopefully it will give them some confidence going forward. When Ole Miss went on their run to take the lead, I got the sense that the guys were starting to point fingers a bit. That's only natural when you are on a 4 game losing streak and things are going south. Hopefully being able to come together and get the win will give them a boost going into these next 2 road games.
Statistically, if you told me before the game we would have 3 guys score 15 or more points, one of them would be Nick Jacobs, and we would hold Eminem to 14 points on 4 of 15 shooting and we would out rebound them 42-34, I would have thought we would win this game easily. On the other hand, if you told me Ole Miss would play a 2-3 zone the whole game and we would only shoot 3 of 17 from 3 point range and 16 of 24 from the free throw line, I would have expected a sure loss.
As I said, there wasn't much of a crowd at all for this game, maybe 2,500 or so. Ole Miss brought a couple of hundred fans, who were thankfully mostly way up in the corner so I didn't have to deal with them. The northern part of the state is dealing with winter weather, and the Birmingham area was under a winter storm warning for snow that is predicted later today (I have my doubts that it will materialize here, but whatever), and I suspect that, along with the losing streak, probably kept some folks away. Even the couple who sits behind us, whom I can't recall missing any games that I've been to in the last 5 years, wasn't there. The crowd that was there was very much loud and into the game, especially during the final minutes.
Up next, we travel to Columbia, SC for a 3 pm tipoff against the Cocks Saturday. The game will be televised on SEC TV. It will be a short turn around for South Carolina, as their game tonight against Vandy has been rescheduled for Thursday due to an ice storm. Looking at the weather forecast for that area, they may be lucky to play tomorrow. If there is a winnable road game on our schedule, this is it.