By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
NASHVILLE – In or out?
That remains to be seen for Ole Miss, but the Rebels’ NCAA tournament bubble certainly sunk to an unhealthy level Friday afternoon.
Ole Miss was unable to seize control of the game in the first half when things were going its way and unable to keep No. 13 Tennessee off the free-throw line in the second half when things weren’t.
Tennessee matched Ole Miss’ 3-point bomb for 3-point bomb and hit 26-of-37 free throws to beat the Rebels 76-65 in an SEC tournament quarterfinal before a Kentucky-blue dominated crowd of 19,123 at Bridgestone Arena.
Most NCAA tournament speculations before the game had Ole Miss as a tournament lock if it were to defeat Tennessee and in a much more precarious position if it did not. The Rebels are now 2-7 against RPI Top 50 teams this season.
“There’s so much made of this team in, this team out, to be honest with you, it’s just counterproductive for us to live in that world,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “All we can do is play the game that’s in front of us.”
The forthcoming game may very likely be the NIT, which would be a third trip for Ole Miss in Kennedy’s four seasons as head coach. Kennedy also led Cincinnati to the NIT in his season as interim head coach in 2006.
“Hopefully some other teams will lose, and they’ll put us in. I’m not saying today is going to put us out, but it’s a big part of it,” sophomore forward Terrance Henry said.
Ole Miss hit six of its first seven 3-point attempts, half of them by Zach Graham who had 11 points in the first half, and the Rebels had a 35-34 edge at the break.
Ole Miss, however, hit just 3 of 18 from 3-point range the rest of the way.
Tennessee finished with four players in double figures, one of them backup guard Cameron Tatum, a 38-percent 3-point shooter who was 4-for-4 from the arc in the first half.
Tatum was among the suspended trio and did not play when the Vols beat Ole Miss 71-69 in overtime in Knoxville on Jan. 16. Tatum had 15 points.
He was just 1-for-5 from 3-point range, the Vols 4-for-23 as a team, against LSU on Thursday.
“I don’t feel like we got enough out of that start,” Ole Miss forward Murphy Holloway said. “The score was too close. We shot the ball very well, but the score was still close.”
It was close enough that free throws could have turned the game the Rebels’ (21-10) way, but they shot just 12-for-25 at the line, a figure that left Kennedy lamenting a season-long problem.
What hasn’t been a problem for Ole Miss is production from Chris Warren, and he was a big factor in the fast start with a couple of 3-pointers in the first half.
The Vols (25-7) chased him, bodied up against him and took him out of his rhythm in the second half. Warren finished with 16, 5-for-12 from the arc, but his last 3-pointer came with 11 minutes, 51 seconds. It was the second of back-to-back 3s, one from each side of the floor, that had the Rebels three points back at 53-50.
After Warren became a defensive priority for the Vols, he finished with nine turnovers, almost doubling his previous season high.
A Warren turnover in the open floor created a four- or five-point swing with the Rebels’ last real chance to put pressure on the Vols. After Tatum got the steal, he passed ahead to Bobby Maze, who scored in transition. The Vols were up 65-56 with 5:03 left.
“He’s better from three than he is from two,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “When we didn’t press up on him, he made tough shots. When we did press up on him and made him get into the lane, our guys were able to strip and rip. The physicality of the lane was not to his liking.”