Short-handed Rebels fight hard but fall to Louisiana Tech, 70-61, in NIT opener
Down two starters, Ole Miss gets valuable minutes for key pieces of next year’s team and looks to future.
At first glance, it would be easy to get upset over Ole Miss’ first round exit in the NIT. After all, the Rebels were one of the top seeds in the tournament but lost their opening-round game, 70-61, to Louisiana Tech Friday night. But keep in mind, Ole Miss was without two of its starters which gave younger players a chance to get valuable minutes in preparation for next year.
Devontae Shuler was in Las Vegas to be with his mother as she recovers from surgery, and K.J. Buffen left the team and has now entered the transfer portal. This left the Rebels with only 8 scholarship players for the game against the Bulldogs.
For the NIT opener, Ole Miss ran with a completely new starting lineup that we haven’t seen this year. Head coach Kermit Davis inserted Matthew Murrell and Robert Allen into the starting lineup alongside Jarkel Joiner, Luis Rodriquez, and Romello White.
Louisiana Tech entered the NIT as a No. 4 seed after being knocked out of the C-USA tournament by NCAA tournament participant North Texas in the semi-finals. With their physical style of play and impressive size for a mid-major, the Bulldogs punched Ole Miss in the mouth to start the game.
Six-foot-seven inch, 276-pound C-USA Freshman of the Year Kenny Lofton Jr., with an excellent combination of size, touch and hands, would lead the way for the Bulldogs.
Louisiana Tech jumped out to a quick 18-8 lead in the first behind the forward combination of Isaiah Crawford and Kenny Lofton Jr.
But the Rebels would come roaring back as Jarkel Joiner caught fire in the late first, helping spark a 12-2 run late in the first half.
Coach Davis: "I am proud of our team. I thought they fought hard. They were excited about coming and playing. They were a little disjointed the first 10 min of the game. I was really impressed with Matthew Murrell. We just turned the ball over way too much."
— The Rebel Walk (@TheRebelWalk) March 20, 2021
Both Joiner and Luis Rodriquez would finish the half scoring in double digits as the Rebels would take a ten-point lead into intermission after a Joiner buzzer-beater. The Rebels would get key contributions from their bench in the first half as Sammy Hunter, Antavion Collum, Austin Crowley and walk-on John McBride would provide minutes.
In the second half, unfortunately, momentum would swing the Bulldogs’ way as fatigue would set in for the short-handed Rebels and mistakes followed.
Louisiana Tech went on a 22-4 run to start the second half — a lead they would hold the remainder of the game. The Rebels committed an uncharacteristically high 21 turnovers on the night, and that certainly contributed to the deficit.
The Bulldogs were fueled by Lofton who finished with 22 points on 8-14 shooting and seven rebounds. Ole Miss struggled to find ways to keep him from getting involved on the offensive end and the Bulldogs were significantly better with him on the court. Cobe Williams also provided a spark off the bench for Tech, adding 8 points in the second half to keep the lead in their favor.
Ole Miss was led by Joiner who finished with 22 points of his own on 7-17 shooting while also adding seven assists. Luis Rodriquez added a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. The Rebels would win the rebounding battle 37-32 over the Bulldogs and both teams shot 41% from the field.
Three Standout Performances
If you look at the box score, there’s a lot to dissect — starting with the final score — but I’m here to tell you not to.
The Rebels were in a rough position for this game with a short roster, and they had to compete without their leader in First-Team All-SEC point guard Devontae Shuler. You can see the turnover margin or the points-in-the-paint margin and wonder; however, the REAL value in this game isn’t found in areas in which the Rebels struggled — but rather in ones at which they excelled.
Friday night, we got to see a different Ole Miss team. Yes, it still had senior Romello White who has announced his intention not to return next year, but aside from him the team was filled with players who will be back.
With all of the roster shake-ups, we watched players thrust into roles we haven’t necessarily seen. Joiner was asked to play the point role; Murrell was asked to be a more focal part of the offense, creating some shots for himself; and Allen and Sammy Hunter had to play more minutes.
Here is a quick analysis of what we saw from Saturday’s action.
Joiner had to take on lead scoring duties for the contest, especially after White started the contest 0-3 from the field. When the team needed a run to close the half, it was Joiner who was there to lead the charge (yes, that’s a pun because he’s from Oxford High).
Joiner would have to prove to be able to pack a scoring punch while also being able to efficiently run the Ole Miss offense. He finished with 22 points and 5 assists (check and check).
But where he excelled the most was the ability to use his handle and craft to find his way to his own shot — whether it be off the drive, in isolation, or in a pick and roll set. Particularly, the play where he set up his defender with a quick crossover on a Romello White screen that ended with him “snaking” the screen and finishing an and-one is his best play.
The freshman guard has had his fair share of ups and down this season. This game, however, Murrell would play 37 minutes and attempt 11 shots. In a lot of games this season, we have seen Matthew get shots off set plays designed to get him looks at the basket. Today was different, as we saw him try to create his own shot more.
Murrell excels at finding lanes to get downhill so he can try and turn a corner and get his own shot. What makes the play above special is how he uses Romello slip-screen as an opportunity to catch his opponent off guard. He also gets further into the paint than we have seen this season and uses his body and pop for the quick shot. It’s a miss but he follows it for the putback.
In the play above, we see Murrell again in a position to try and catch his defender reacting to the Joiner pass. Instead of a catch and shoot three, Murrell chooses to attack his defender trying to close out. He excels at getting a step into the paint where he can finish right at the rim for an easy two. As we can see, Murrell is at his best when given the opportunity to go within the flow of the game.
Murrell would end the contest 4-11 shooting with nine points and seven rebounds. The freshman also had a long gap in the second without taking a shot, but his play drew praise from Coach Davis postgame.
Not a huge part of the rotation early in the season, Sammy Hunter has done whatever has been asked of him this year. He has kept his head down and just tried to play in any role that came his way. Today he was the sixth man off the bench and provided an impact for when Romello or Robert Allen needed a breather.
Earlier in the year, if you ever watched our post-game live shows, we called Sammy a great “energy-big.” That means his motor to rebound and do dirty work provided a good service. Against Louisiana Tech, Sammy got to display progress from that role as he not only rebounded well (he grabbed seven rebounds), but he got to stretch the floor a bit.
In the play above on a long rebound, Hunter receives a pass and immediately steps into a mid-range jumper right inside the three point line. It takes confidence for players to take and hit that shot without hesitation, especially as a big. Hunter makes it look smooth here.
In this play, we see Hunter act as the screener for Luis. Hunter’s defender views him as a non-shooting threat and is playing in the drop position to help on Rodriquez if he were to drive.
Hunter makes the smart play and immediately pops out to the three-point line after Rodriquez’s man gets around the screen. As he receives the pass, it’s too little too late for Gordon (#33) to get there as Hunter knocks down the triple.
If Hunter can add this shooting to his game for next season, it will change how defenders have to guard screens and could open up more looks for not only himself but the aforementioned Murrell to get downhill and Joiner, not to mention incoming McDonald’s All-American Daeshun Ruffin.
While we didn’t see the team make a NIT run, we can view this as extra basketball that shows the potential of the next year’s Ole Miss basketball team.
Yes, there is certainly more work to be had on assembling the roster, as Coach Davis discussed in his postgame press conference.
“We’ve got to add, obviously, a big, a five-man,” Davis said after the game. “We need to add another forward, a really skilled forward that can play. And then kind of the best-available player we can add. We think we’ve got a good point in Daeshun (Ruffin, a McDonald’s All-American). We like the wings; the other two freshmen wings (Grant Slatten and James White) are going to be good,” Davis continued.
“But our skill-level’s got to improve. We’ve got to add three guys in the spring and they’ve got to be All-SEC-type players. I think we’ve got some good pieces coming back, some good young pieces, and we’ve got to be successful in player development over the summer.“
Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis
Although Friday night’s game was disappointing — losses always are — it offered an opportunity for the core of next year to show us what areas of the game they have been improving upon and the steps they will be working on in the future.