By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy had some nice parting gifts for his old friend Devan Downey … defense, defense, defense.
It didn’t stop the star guard that Kennedy recruited to Cincinnati, but it slowed Downey, a South Carolina senior, enough for No. 22 Ole Miss to beat the Gamecocks 66-57 before a Tad Smith Coliseum crowd of 6,824 Wednesday night.
Kennedy had been 0-4 against South Carolina, two of those losses with Downey at the wheel.
The Rebels’ switching defenses kept Downey from being a factor early. Ole Miss built a 16-point first-half lead, and though threatened in the second half never trailed.
Downey, the SEC’s leading scorer at 20.9 points a game was even better in the league, averaging 32.3.
He got seven of his 25 points in the final 2 minutes when the Rebels had pushed the lead back to 12.
“Switching the defenses gave him a different look, and it made him have to attack us in a different way,” said Ole Miss guard Chris Warren, who led four Rebels in double figures with 17 points.
A re-emergence of Murphy Holloway also helped Ole Miss (14-4, 2-2 SEC), which bounced back from a 71-67 overtime loss at No. 9 Tennessee on Saturday. Holloway, the Irmo, S.C., native was active on the offensive glass, getting a double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds.
“That’s his home state school, and he played with passion. That’s what we need out of Murph. He cleaned up some misses and did his job tonight,” Kennedy said.
Most of the damage from the Gamecocks came at the free throw line where the Rebels again had trouble defending in the post. South Carolina (11-7, 2-2 SEC) attempted just one free throw in the first half but was 15-for-21 in the second, most of it by Downey who seemed to settle in and affected the game more. He got into the lane more, involved his teammates and was 9-for-10 from the free throw line in the second half. He finished 7-for-20 from the floor.
It was at the free throw line that South Carolina effectively chipped away. It was a 53-47 game with a little more than 5 minutes to play when Zach Graham got a steal. He couldn’t convert the layup but hit a free throw, and the Rebels seemed to seize the momentum.
“We weren’t guarding anybody in the first half. In the second half we just tried to back up and do our best to keep them in front of us,” South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. “I was proud of the way we responded, but we dug ourselves too big a hole against a good team on the road.”
Following Graham’s free throw the Rebels scored on three of their next four possessions. Holloway’s put-back of a Warren missed layup got the lead back to 10, and when Eniel Polynice got a steal and layup at the 2:20 mark it was a 62-50 advantage.
Everybody got a piece of Downey in the first half it seemed. Trevor Gaskins, Terrico White and Polynice all took turns guarding him one-on-one, and he got some zone looks too. As a result the Gamecocks struggled early. They were stuck on four points until Downey got free for a 15-footer on a set play following a time out. The bucket came with 12:55 left in the half.
Downey had nine points on 4-for-10 shooting in the half.
The Rebels, meanwhile, got to the rim and finished plays in the first half.
At one point deep in the first half the Rebels were shooting 67 percent. They finished the half at 56.7 percent and with a 38-23 lead.
Ole Miss shot just 34.5 percent in the second half. Terrico White finished with 11, and Polynice had 10.
“We started off at a torrid pace, but I knew Downey would try to take over the game and keep them in it with dribble penetration,” Kennedy said. “That put pressure on us, and we fouled. Typically, when a team makes more free throws than you attempt you lose, which means we were pretty good in some other areas.”