OXFORD, Miss. (WTVA/Ole Miss Athletics) – As skilled and quick as Eastern Kentucky was in the post, Ole Miss’ guard play provided the fire power to lift the Rebels over the Colonels 85-75 to improve to 2-0 on Monday evening.
The win sent Ole Miss (2-0) to over .500 as a program for the first time since 1959, a testament to what Andy Kennedy has accomplished in his 12 years in Oxford.
Ole Miss’ lead ballooned to as many as 10 in the first half and 19 in the second. Eastern Kentucky closed the gap a number of times, largely thanks to the play of forward Nick Mayo. The junior had 19 points and 10 rebounds. He was an undersized handful in the post and kept the Colonels in striking distance for most of the game.
“I just think he’s got a good tempo to his game,” Kennedy said. “They run everything through him and nine times out of ten he makes the right decision. His decision making hurt us late in the shot clock tonight.”
Kennedy said he knew Mayo was good, but was even quicker and more skilled in person.
Ultimately, the scoring from Ole Miss’ backcourt kept the Colonels at a comfortable distance for most of the second half. No one on the floor was more efficient for the Rebels than senior guard Deandre Burnett. He scored 17 points on 4-of-8 shooting coming off of the bench, including 4-of-5 from beyond the arc and knocking down 5-of-6 free throws. With as crowded as the Rebels’ backcourt is, someone must come off the bench and that has been Burnett through the first two games. He does not seem to mind.
“AK always tells me my role hasn’t changed,” Burnett said. “It doesn’t matter if I am coming off of the bench. We have a lot of good guards. Someone has to come off the bench. I felt like I was the best guy for that job.”
Kennedy’s trust in Burnett hasn’t wavered and, if anything, has increased when he is on the floor. The ball was in Burnett’s hands in the final minutes of both halves as the Rebels were trying to preserve the win.
“As the oldest guy on the floor, he has got to be open and loud,” Kennedy said. “He has got to take ownership of the locker room.”
Devontate Shuler scored 12 points in his first career start, and Terence Davis had 16 of his own. Markell Crawford scored 10 points. The Rebels showed how athletic they can be in the back court on the offensive end. The team took a six-point lead going into the halftime locker room at 40-34. That jumped to 13 at 55-42 early in the second half before made buckets from Mayo and Dedric Boyd shrunk it back down to eight points with roughly 10 minutes to go in the game. Boyd had 19 points as well on 6-of-17 shooting. He made a pair of three-pointers.
“We were better in the second half,” Kennedy said. “We are always better in the second half offensively simply because we can be in their ear more because they are in front of us. We had spurts, we just need to be more consistent.”
Ole Miss took control of the game from that point on, mainly on the defensive end against Mayo, and a 9-1 spurt helped earn an 80-61 lead with four minutes left to put the game on ice. The Rebels have shown the ability to score in quick spurts due to how quick they are on the perimeter.
“Everyone is just settling in and getting used to each other,” Burnett said. “Once these guys settle in, we will play even more together as a team. We have a very unselfish group.”
The Colonels made some shots late and wouldn’t go away, but the game was never really in doubt.
“I wish we had finished stronger,” Kennedy said. “Some of that is experience and some of it is making decisions with the ball. Hopefully that will clean up.”
Ole Miss’ body of work through two games has been satisfactory overall. Kennedy is still feeling out who plays best with one another and what the team’s best lineups are in certain situations. The Rebels only turned the ball over eight times in this game, shrinking its number from the opener by six. Kennedy’s main concern lies on the defensive end. He doesn’t think they have defended off the dribble well and it has caused some unnecessary defensive rotations. It showed when the Rebels would extend the lead to double digits, only to have it scaled back down to seven or eight points. He hopes to shore that up along with the post defense.
“My biggest concern is simply our inability to be as athletic on the defensive end as we appear to be offensively,” Kennedy said. “That tells me our drive has to be much greater on the defensive end of the floor.”
The Rebels will have a few days off before returning to The Pavilion at Ole Miss for their third consecutive home game. Ole Miss hosts Georgia State Friday night at 6 p.m.
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The victory gave Ole Miss an all-time winning percentage over .500 (1,283-1,282) for the first time since Jan. 12, 1959. The Rebels were 95 games under .500 as a program when Andy Kennedy became head coach.
Ole Miss started off 2-0 for the 11th time in the past 12 seasons, all under Kennedy.
The Rebels’ bench scored 42 of the team’s 85 points, outscoring the Eastern Kentucky bench by 26.
Freshman Devontae Shuler made his first career start and recorded 12 points.
Deandre Burnett led the Rebels with 17 points, the second straight game he’s scored 17.