Reginald Buckner dangled from the rim for an instant after mashing down a dunk with five seconds left until halftime, an emphatic moment of pause after Ole Miss spent 10 minutes building to his crescendo.
Arriving at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center with its NCAA tournament hopes on a respirator, the Rebels ruthlessly blitzed LSU in an 81-67 victory spurred by a 17-2 first-half run. It was a Southeastern Conference finale that blunted the over-achieving Tigers’ momentum and assured the program it would enter as the No. 9 seed in next week’s conference tournament.
“When you take a team with their backs against the wall, with NCAA aspirations, they could have come out and played a little bit tight,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “They responded well.”
Unfolding in the same fashion as LSU’s loss a week ago at Missouri, Ole Miss (23-8, 12-6) withstood a hot-shooting start from the Tigers (18-11, 9-9) before bludgeoning LSU in the lane and on the boards, piling up a 36-20 scoring advantage in the paint and a plus-6 rebounding margin.
“Some days we look like one of the best teams in the SEC, and sometimes we look like the worst,” Ole Miss forward Murphy Holloway said. “Today we looked like one of the best.”
Guard Marshall Henderson notched 22 points on 6-of-13 shooting, including 4-of-9 behind the 3-point line, but it was the work of Holloway on the low block and Jarvis Summers slashing off the dribble into the paint that spurred the Rebels.
“They made some layups and got dunks. I thought they were able to drive us to the basket,” Jones said.
“Their guards were really strong and really physical. They actually got us in the paint area as well and were able to shoot up over us.”
With his team trailing 21-15, Holloway, who finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, started Ole Miss’ run when he slammed down a follow-up of Reginald Buckner’s miss at 11:02. Two minutes later, Holloway put the Rebels ahead for good at 22-21 with 8:51 to go on a floater in transition after LSU guard Malik Morgan’s floater bounced long on the rebound.
LSU, which shot 41.1 percent, found itself mired in what wound up a 6:31 scoring drought that included eight missed shots and three turnovers, ending mercifully when guard Andre Stringer made a jumper from the right wing on an inbounds play with 5:33 left to cut the deficit to 27-23.
Over that span, the Tigers, who shot 9 of 23 behind the 3-point arc, largely settled for jumpers, the byproduct of Ole Miss switching defensive looks between zone and man-to-man with pressure applied by sporadic traps in the corners.
“We kind of made it into what they wanted us to do,” guard Charles Carmouche said. “Guys are going to be a split-second late getting to you. I think we did what we normally do, but we just didn’t make them.”
Inside, forward Johnny O’Bryant, who finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds, was slowed by an undisclosed injury that had held him out of practice the past two days, while senior center Andrew Del Piero finished with seven points on 3-of-7 shooting.
“It’s really difficult to miss two full days of practice like that and come play against this caliber of competition,” Jones said. “So, it wasn’t really fair to Johnny. We really put him in that position, and you really just roll the dice and hope that he’ll be able to execute and play.”
Meanwhile, Ole Miss kept extending its lead, with Henderson playing the chief role of distributor dishing to a cutting Holloway and Buckner off pick-and-roll situations, including a one-handed bounce pass to Holloway along the left baseline for a dunk and a 25-21 lead with 6:51 left.
Granted, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy was pleased to see Henderson, known as a bulk shooter who can go hot and cold, settle for sharing Saturday.
“I thought it was very efficient for him to have five assists and five steals,” Kennedy said. “He did a good job of sharing the ball and taking what the defense gave them.”
After Stringer hit a 3-pointer to draw LSU within four, Henderson answered with a 3 of his own on the left wing to extend the lead back to 30-23, followed on the next possession by a floater from Summers to cap the run at 32-23 with 4:52 left in the first half en route to a 43-30 lead at the break.
For 59 seconds early in the second half, LSU’s knack for knitting together comebacks seemed to appear when Del Piero threw down a two-handed dunk on a high-low play from O’Bryant to cut the deficit to 46-37 with 17:02 left.
It was as close as the Tigers would get the rest of the way. Not even rolling out the full-court press helped. Henderson, who scored 14 points in the second half, punctuated that fact when he took a lob over the top and pulled up from 25 feet to bury a 3-pointer for a 55-39 lead.
“Initially, when we got into they turned it over,” Jones said. “But because of their size and strength, they’re good ball handlers, poised under pressure and made good passes over it.”
Now, LSU waits until Thursday for a first-round SEC tournament date with Georgia.
“We thought we were going to cut the lead down,” Stringer said. “But they sustained well even throughout us scoring.”
The ease even caught Holloway off guard.
“It surprised me,” he said. “It wasn’t a real dogfight.”