By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Ole Miss had fallen short in opportunities for big RPI wins at home earlier this season.
Saturday in their last chance to grab the attention of the NCAA selection committee, the Rebels came up big, overcoming a couple of obstacles in the process.
Playing without Jelan Kendrick, it’s top reserve, and shooting a woeful 47.1 percent from the free-throw line, the Rebels kept Alabama at arm’s length in the second half and won 60-51 before a crowd of 6,339 at Tad Smith Coliseum.
Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) is a key component used by the selection committee in awarding NCAA tournament at-large bids. The Rebels began the day with an RPI ranking of 58. Alabama was ranked 30.
The Rebels lost at home against Florida and Vanderbilt, games where wins could have greatly strengthened the tournament resume.
Ole Miss is 8-11 against RPI top 110 teams.
“I have an exhausted group of guys in that locker room, and they’re exhausted, because this is the way we’ve played from La. Monroe until now,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “Every game is a grind, it’s hard, not easy. It’s who we are.”
The Rebels (18-12, 8-8 SEC) have won three straight and will be the No. 7 seed to face No. 10 seed Auburn in the first round of the SEC tournament Thursday in New Orleans.
Kendrick is averaging 5.2 points, 2.2 assists and 21 minutes a game. He did not participate with the team in warm-ups but appeared at the end of the Rebels’ bench after the game began.
Earlier this season Kendrick, the only McDonald’s high school All-American in the history of the program, had a public outburst against teammate Reggie Buckner following the Rebels’ 102-76 loss to Vanderbilt on Feb. 16. The following day he issued an apology in a university news release.
Kennedy said Kendrick did not play because of a “coach’s decision.” Regarding the player’s immediate future, Kennedy said, “I will sit back, and we will revisit the situation once I have a chance to evaluate it.”
The absence of Kendrick changed the playing rotation. That meant more minutes for freshman LaDarius White, whose minutes had decreased over the second half of the season. White finished with 10 points, seven in the first half, in 17 minutes.
Freshman point guard Jarvis Summers and senior guard Terrance Henry also had 10 points, the trio sharing team scoring honors.
Reggie Buckner, Nick Williams and Murphy Holloway each had nine points.
“I felt confidence,” White said. “I play with confidence, so when I got on the court, I just played with the same intensity.”
At the line
Ole Miss routinely broke through the Alabama pressure and either converted in the lane or got to the free throw line where it hit just 16-of-34 attempts. The Rebels had just seven turnovers while forcing 13.
In a game that was back-and-forth early, Ole Miss surged ahead and closed the first 20 minutes on a 14-2 run to lead 28-17 at halftime.
Alabama (20-10, 9-7) shot just 22.2 percent (6-for-27) from the field in the first half.
The Crimson Tide dictated tempo in the early minutes of the second half and cut the deficit to four points less than 4 minutes into the half.
But the Rebels weathered the storm, forcing stops on the Tide’s next three offensive trips and gradually building the lead back to eight.
It was 55-50 when Summers drove and scored with 1 minutes, 23 seconds left, and the Tide was lingering in frantic comeback range in the final half minute when Henry leaped to blocked a 3-point attempt by Charles Hankerson.
“You’ve got to make shots, and you’ve got to take care of the basketball,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “They’ve got good size and length, and they did a good job in the zone. They’re a good defensive team.”