By Parrish Alford / NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – The first half of those two very important home games didn’t start well for Ole Miss.
Needing wins against strong RPI opponents, the Rebels found themselves out-played down the stretch, as Tennessee pulled away for a 74-57 win before 8,807 fans at Tad Smith Coliseum Saturday.
Ole Miss players had targeted Saturday’s game and Tuesday’s game against No. 14 Kentucky as opportunities to play themselves back into the discussion for an NCAA tournament bid.
For a time, it appeared the Rebels could be on a successful track.
Chris Warren scored 13 points in the first half, and with 13 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game, Warren knocked down a 3-pointer for a 45-44 Ole Miss lead.
But Tennessee got its transition game going in the second half, a key factor as it closed on a 30-12 run.
“We didn’t play with any passion in the second half,” sophomore guard Nick Williams said. “We didn’t attack the glass, and we didn’t get back on defense.”
A stellar foul-shooting performance in the first half kept the Rebels in it. Ole Miss took advantage of 13 personal fouls by the Vols with a 16 for 19 success rate at the free throw line.
That offset 7 for 25 field goal shooting, and Ole Miss and Tennessee were tied 32-all at the half.
After halftime, the Vols didn’t send the Rebels to the free throw line, nor did they allow them to find their stroke.
After shooting shooting 62.5 percent in a 27-point win at LSU last week, its first within the SEC, Ole Miss (13-8, 1-5 SEC) shot just 26.7 percent from the floor.
The Rebels were 4 for 20 from 3-point range.
“It was a nightmare. I’ve never experienced anything like it,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “We weren’t aggressive. We went as deep on our play card as we could, hoping to break through, but we had no answers offensively.”
Ole Miss began the day as the SEC’s top field goal shooting team at 47 percent. That figured dipped a little bit against conference teams, but the Rebels were still shooting 45.2 percent against the league, almost 19 percentage points higher than what they managed against the Vols (14-7, 4-2)
Tennessee went into the game allowing 44.2 percent shooting in SEC games, 10th in the league.
“It was an unacceptable performance, and ultimately it’s my responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Kennedy said. “I take that responsibility. We have to take a hard look at ourselves and have guys play to their capability for us to have a chance.”
Warren was 5 for 11 in the first half, but his 3-pointer for the lead was his only made shot of the final 20 minutes when he was 1 for 10.
No teammate had his back. Zach Graham, the team’s second-leading scorer, got off only two field goal attempts, missing both. He was 5 for 6 from the free throw line, his five points well below his 14.4 scoring average.
Guards Trevor Gaskins, Dundrecous Nelson and Williams were a combined 4 for 19 from the floor.
Ole Miss players said the dismal percentages were more about their on inefficiency than what the Vols were doing defensively.
“We got good looks, we just didn’t make them,” Warren said. “It happens. It would have been better if it had happened to Tennessee.”
While the shots were off the mark, the Tennessee kept Ole Miss from a meaningful presence on the offensive glass while the game was still in play. The Vols had a 49-40 edge on the glass, a 13-4 edge on the offensive glass in the first half.
Tennessee center Brian Williams came off the bench to hit 7 of 8 field goals and finished with 18 points and nine rebounds. Freshman forward Tobias Harris had 12 rebounds.
“We had to will ourselves to want this game more,” Tennessee interim coach Tony Jones said. “We built a defensive wall around Warren and didn’t allow him to go off on us.”