Defense powering Ole Miss’ recent SEC surge

Published 7:12 pm Monday, February 18, 2019

OXFORD (AP) — Ole Miss keeps finding big-time contributors on its roster as it continues to make an unexpected push up the Southeastern Conference standings.

Bruce Stevens came off the bench to score 17 points, tying a season-high, to lead Ole Miss over Missouri 75-65 on Saturday for the team’s fourth straight win.

Stevens made three 3-pointers and shot 5-of-11 from the field.

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“It just makes us more of a worthy SEC team,” Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis said of Stevens’ elevated play. “That can help us play better in March because he’s got a physical presence, but he can stretch it and go out and make a three. There’s a lot of conventional (centers) out there and he’s a hard matchup.”

The Rebels’ (18-7, 8-4) winning streak comes after a four-game losing skid that threated to derail the season, and they’ll look to continue it Tuesday night at South Carolina. It’s the donut hole in a stretch of three home dates in four games, and a key matchup with another mid-level SEC team.

After this, the Rebels host Georgia and No. 5 Tennesse in their next two games.

“It is a big game. It really is. I have so much respect for Frank (Martin). I think we both know we aren’t going to win the SEC regular season championship, but there is so much to play for,” Davis said. “But let me tell you, these double-byes, playing in the quarterfinals, it is a big game no doubt. Whoever wins that game will be one game up and have the tiebreaker. It will be a big game between two teams that are playing really well right now.”

The Rebels’ surge can be credited to their defense. Coming off a road win where they held Auburn to a season low 55 points, Ole Miss put together another great defensive outing in beating Missouri (12-12, 3-9). They forced 25 turnovers that were converted into 32 points. That allowed them to overcome Missouri’s 37-21 rebounding advantage.

The Tigers had been averaging 10.5 turnovers in their previous four games.

“I thought their guards did a great job putting pressure on the perimeter, making us doing the next thing. They made us uncomfortable, and that’s where the turnovers happened,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “I thought we did some good stuff, but 25 turnovers. It’s hard to win a ballgame like that.”

Missouri cut the lead to seven with less than three minutes remaining. The Rebels scored on their next three possessions to end the comeback threat.

“When (the lead) got to 19 we kind of let our guard down and they never stopped,” Davis said. “The biggest thing was we went to our 1-3-1 (zone defense) late just to kind of get time off the clock.”