OXFORD, Miss. (WTVA/Ole Miss Athletics) - The Florida Gators came into The Pavilion winners of six straight games and unbeaten in SEC play, but Ole Miss made sure they wouldn't leave that way. Shooting 60 percent (15 of 25) in the second half and making 22 of 26 free throws throughout the game, the Rebels (10-7, 3-2 SEC) protected their home floor with a 78-72 victory to hand the Gators (12-5, 4-1 SEC) their first conference loss of the season.
Bruce Stevens' arrival party came at a pretty opportune time for Ole Miss. The junior forward's 22 points and six rebounds lifted the Rebels to their biggest win of the year. Stevens provided the consistent post scoring this team has been lacking and the results spoke to just how important that is for this team. Florida was previously 4-0 in the SEC and had knocked off Gonzaga earlier in the season.
"I told the team this should be the standard going forward," head coach Andy Kennedy said. "I thought our group really grew up today."
From the opening tip, it was clear Kennedy and the Rebels put an emphasis on getting the basketball to the paint. The team played inside out around Stevens. The ball movement was better as a result, and the Rebels shot 43.1 percent from the field as a result. It took the pressure off the guards. Ole Miss launched just 18 three-pointers, well below its season average.
"The last two weeks our emphasis has been getting the ball into the paint," Kennedy said. "When Bruce is in the game, we are trying to play through him."
Stevens had struggled with his jump shot at times this year, but today he was a force down low as he continues to learn in his first college season.
"I have to make more shots to stretch the floor out," Bruce said. "I am getting my comfort back and believing in my teammates."
Deandre Burnett had 20 points on 5 of 8 shooting. Markel Crawford was 7 of 12 from the field and poured in 17. The 48 points the backcourt compiled seemed to come easier with Stevens being active down low. The Rebels won the battle on the glass 44-35.
"It's much easier," Burnett said. "A lot of times when you beat your man, the other big is hesitant to come over because Bruce is creating so much space and finishing everything at the rim. A lot of times, the defender is hesitant to come over. If he does, we are confident in dumping it to Bruce to finish it off."
Florida jumped out to a 17-10 lead in the first eight minutes of the game, but the Rebels stayed within striking distance. Crawford had eight first half points and kept the Rebels in it. Ole Miss tied the game at 22 and went into the locker room tied at 31 after briefly taking a three-point lead. The team was 20 minutes away from its biggest win of the year.
The early portion of the second half spelled trouble for Ole Miss. Florida began to shoot the basketball better from the perimeter. Four three-point shots in the first eight minutes gave the Gators a 52-44 lead with 12 minutes remaining in the game. Keith Stone led Florida with 23 points.
But Ole Miss clawed its way back into the game again. Burnett began making shots with 15 of his 20 points coming in the second half. Crawford and Stevens continued to be problematic for the Gators on the offensive end. A struggling Terence Davis made plays at the defensive end of the floor with a pair of blocks. He impacted the game despite going 2 of 11 from the floor.
"I thought he was much more mature," Kennedy said. "He had eight rebounds, four assists and two huge blocks. Man, he can influence the game in so many ways other than making shots. I think tonight showed that. We just have to continue to put him in a position to make plays and hopefully he will come around to the TD we know."
The Rebels shot 60 percent (15 of 25) from the floor in the second half to Florida's 40 percent (12 of 30). Ole Miss got stops down the stretch when it needed them.
"We've still got a long way to go," Kennedy said. "But we are much better than we used to be."
Ole Miss tied the game at 52. The teams exchanged blows until a 6-1 spurt put the Rebels ahead 70-65 with four minutes left and in a position to try to close out a win at home.
"This showed our growth," Burnett said. "Our ability to fight back."
Florida got it back to a two-point deficit, but three Tyree free throws and a Stevens jumper in the final 90 seconds was enough to salt the game away. Ole Miss notched a signature win and got back over .500 in SEC play.
"Ole Miss played with an edge today," Florida head coach Mike White said. "They wanted it more."
The Rebels made the winning plays Kennedy has often talked about them not making. The team went 22 of 26 from the free throw line and 13 of 16 in the second half. It will give Ole Miss confidence as it hits a tough two-game road stretch next week. The Rebels are 3-0 in league play at home and can play their way back into postseason contention if it can find a way break through on the road.
"It's opportunities for us," Kennedy said. "We need opportunities and to take advantage of them. Hopefully this will allow us to have a little sigh of relief."