OXFORD, Miss. (WTVA/Ole Miss Athletics) - Ole Miss had to shake off some cobwebs accumulated during finals week, but junior point guard Alissa Alston put the team on her back and helped lead the Rebels to a narrow 66-59 win over upstart South Alabama at The Pavilion on Saturday.
“We didn’t have our best game tonight,” said Ole Miss head coach Matt Insell. “We had exam week, we had a lot of rust and we’ve got some kids that are sick that are having to push through, but we found a way to get a win and I’m just real proud of that.”
The Rebels – now 8-1 for the first time since 2005-06 and on the first six-game winning streak since Insell’s first Ole Miss squad won seven in a row in 2013-14 – received uncharacteristic outings from junior Madinah Muhammad (13 points, 2-of-15 shooting) and freshman Promise Taylor (five points, six rebounds, fouled out), but junior point guard Alissa Alston was razor-sharp on another career-day to help fill the void.
Alston was the catalyst for the Rebels from wire-to-wire, dropping a new career-high 27 points on the Jaguars (5-2) on a near-perfect shooting day at 10-of-11 from the field and 6-of-7 from the free throw line. Alston’s lone miss bounced around the rim late in the fourth quarter, costing her a chance to become just the fifth Rebel to remain perfect with a least seven made field goals.
Ole Miss was also able to get a clutch performance out of freshman Chyna Nixon, who started her second straight game in place of injured senior Shandricka Sessom. Nixon scored a career-high 10 points all in the first half to help the Rebels to a fast first start.
However, the Jaguars came out swinging as well, with forward Chyna Ellis nailing the first three attempts from beyond the arc to give South Alabama a 12-7 lead early on. Ellis, who ended up with 20 points and 12 boards, had only hit five threes all season entering today.
South Alabama rode that momentum to a 25-22 lead at the end of the first quarter – a season-high for Rebel opponents in first quarter scoring. Both offenses slowed a bit in the second quarter, but a crucial stretch with Nixon and Shelby Gibson (two points, four rebounds) helped keep the game in check while dominant post presence Promise Taylor was on the bench with two personal fouls.
Junior Torri Lewis (three points, two rebounds) helped seal the momentum with a buzzer-beater three at the end of the half to give Ole Miss a 40-34 lead that it would not relinquish the remainder of the game.
South Alabama made things interesting late, pulling to within one point with just 41 seconds to play at a 60-59 Rebel lead. After a pair of Muhammad free throws, the Jaguars had the ball for an inbounds play down 62-59 with 11 seconds left. The long pass down low to Ellis in the post seemed to work, but the ball bounced out for Alston to grab for a crucial coast-to-coast layup to put the game out of reach.
“It’s a great win,” Insell said. “South Alabama is a good basketball team. (Jaguars head coach) Terry (Fowler) does a great job, and this is one of the best teams he’s has since he’s been there. Very senior-oriented for them, they’ve got a lot of seniors, and it showed out there.”
“It was just two tough, hard-nosed, defensive teams that got after each other,” Insell added.
Despite both Muhammad (entered as SEC’s second-best scorer at 21.1 points per game) and Taylor (entered as NCAA’s top freshman in both shooting percentage and blocks) both being stifled by a good Jaguar defense that held Ole Miss to under 40 percent shooting for just the second time this year, the play of Alston and the team effort down the stretch helped prove something valuable to Insell: his team can still be in contention with his top scorers getting more defensive attention.
“We were just out of it a little bit there, and not just one of them,” Insell said. “Luckily, Alissa wasn’t. Madinah had an off shooting night, and those types of nights are going to happen, and we’ve got to find a way to win when those nights happen. She takes a lot of shots, she goes 2-for-15 and we found a way to win, that was huge for us.”
“It’s good to get a win when you don’t have your best game,” Insell continued. “We didn’t have our A-game, we had our D-game, really. Hopefully we wasted all of our A’s on final exams and took our D’s in this game.”
Ole Miss has a quick turnaround, wrapping up its current homestand with the annual Kids Day Game on Tuesday morning at 11 a.m. vs. Southern Miss before a two-game swing out on the West Coast vs. No. 9 Oregon (Dec. 17) and Portland State (Dec. 19).
“This is the time of year when we have to get better,” Insell said. “We have no class for the next month and a half. We’ve got to get better over the next three or four weeks if we’re going to make a push in the SEC.”