By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Focus and intensity are constant story lines for a postseason basketball tournament in which many participants would rather be someplace else.
Ole Miss players are in the group that would rather be someplace else, but they say they’ll play hard.
And they have the last two weeks to draw from and try to regain an edge.
The Rebels are at home tonight for an 8:30 p.m., tip against Illinois State in a first-round game in the 75th playing of the National Invitation Tournament.
Ole Miss is a No. 2 seed, Illinois State, the Missouri Valley Conference tournament runner-up, a No. 7 seed.
Tonight’s winner will face the Stanford-Cleveland State winner at a time to be announced. Ole Miss will not travel before the New York semifinals unless it is to face No. 1 seed Arizona.
The Rebels (20-13) had a five-game win streak snapped against Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament semifinals, the loss coming after a hard-fought and dramatic overtime win against SEC 2 seed Tennessee.
After Vols shooting guard Skylar McBee forced the overtime by banking in an off-balance 3-pointer, Ole Miss dominated the overtime period by doing things it hasn’t consistently done this season: hitting baskets and making free throws.
“It was hard, but we couldn’t think about that shot. In the huddle we got everybody focused, and you saw what happened when we came out of the huddle,” junior guard Nick Williams said.
When the Rebels came out of the huddle they scored on seven of their eight possessions, and senior guard Terrance Henry was 5 for 6 from the free throw line in the last minute.
Jarvis Summers, Murphy Holloway, Williams and Henry all hit buckets in the extra period.
“The first feeling that I got when that went in, and I had a great view of the shot, and I thought it was going to veer left then it banked in, as the guys were walking towards me, I wouldn’t say deflated, I would say stunned. We were all a little stunned,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said.
Stunned may have been what No. 15-ranked Wichita State – a 5 seed in the NCAA tournament – was feeling when Illinois State guard Tyler Brown scored 25 points – including two free throws with 6.4 seconds left – to lift the Redbirds to a 65-64 win in the MVC semifinals.
The Redbirds (20-13) were projected to finish eighth in the MVC regular season. They finished tied for third, one of five teams at 9-9.
Rarity for Redbirds
Illinois State may fit in the group that is happy to be in the NIT.
Only one player on the Redbirds’ roster has postseason game experience. Junior forward Jackie Carmichael (6-9, 240) played 17 minutes and scored three points as a freshman when Illinois State lost at Dayton in the NIT in 210 – the same year Dayton defeated Ole Miss in New York.
Kennedy expects a focused Redbirds team tonight, and says the Rebels will be challenged to match their intensity.
The overtime period against Tennessee is a fresh memory, a position experience that may help the Rebels do just that. Bouncing back against the Vols wasn’t easy.
“It was very hard. When he hit that 3 it took the air out of us,” Henry said. “We regained our focus. After everybody got down we said, ‘We got five minutes left. We’re the better team, and we’re going to be the better team for the next five minutes.”