BY PARRISH ALFORD
OXFORD – The pain of denial has been replaced with the excitement of a new opportunity.
Refocusing to play in the NIT is never an easy thing, but both Ole Miss and Ohio State have managed to do just that as they prepare to meet in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.
The Rebels have shot 49 percent or better in three straight NIT wins. Guards Chris Warren and David Huertas have combined to shoot 48.8 percent from 3-point range during that time.
While Ole Miss (24-10) has gotten increased production from some of its regulars, it’s gotten timely play from reserves as well with defense from Rodney Jones against Cal-Santa Barbara and offense from Zach Graham in overtime against Nebraska.
There’s been a sharp mental edge as the Rebels have now won six of their last seven.
“We had to reinvent ourselves a little bit. It was hard,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “We dug a hole when we were sitting at 4-9 in the SEC. We knew we had no margin for error, and we put everything we had into getting into the NCAA tournament. When we didn’t reach that goal, it would have been easy to say, It’s over.'”
Ohio State coach Thad Matta faced similar issues with the Buckeyes (22-13), who played for the national championship against Florida last season.
While the Rebels made a late push for the NCAAs, Matta saw growth after key games against the Big Ten Conference.
“Coming off the Minnesota game (a 71-57 road loss), there seemed to be more of a sharpness and edge to us,” he said. “Once we got into the NIT, our guys just seemed to be pretty sharp and focused on what needed to be done.”
Ohio State won home games against North Carolina-Asheville, California and Dayton to reach the semifinals.
Another Ole Miss player upping his production in the postseason is forward Kenny Williams, who is averaging 12.3 points and 9.9 rebounds in the NIT. He had a double-double at Virginia Tech with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
The 11 boards were the most in two months for Williams. He finds his motivation in trying to extend his playing career.
“Not making the NCAAs was hard for a person like me, a senior, who will never get that chance,” Williams said. “But this is where you are now. This is the course that’s been laid, and you have to play it. We’re not going to make excuses for where we are now. We have a chance to hang an NIT banner, something that’s never happened at Ole Miss, and we’re the second-winningest team in school history. We feel good about that.”