OXFORD, Miss. - UT Martin could barely miss in the first half, but a tight Rebel perimeter defense and a momentum-shifting run in the back half helped Ole Miss men's basketball escape over the Skyhawks, 72-68, at SJB Pavilion on Friday night.
Ole Miss (4-0) came up against a sharpshooting UT Martin (2-3) squad that drained 51.8 percent of its shots in the first half while going 6-of-11 from beyond the arc, but the Rebels clamped the Skyhawks down to just a 1-of-9 line from three in the second half. Ole Miss also ran into a physical Skyhawk defense that stifled the Rebels to 36.4 percent in the first half and just 5-of-19 from three all game, but Ole Miss used its defense to create offense in the second half en route to a game-changing 24-4 run across a wide swath of the period. This season, the Rebels are outscoring opponents by 41 points in the second half.
"Give UT Martin a ton of credit," said Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis. "(UT Martin head coach) Ryan (Ridder) did a great job preparing his team. We got out-coached, we got out-physicaled for a long period of time. They looked like the SEC team around the goal, and we didn't. Finishing balls, going back and chasing 50-50 balls. With that being said, I'm proud of our team and the way we find ways to win games. We've got a lot of character, a lot of good guys on our team."
The game featured nine total lead changes and four ties, and the back-and-forth nature of the game was apparent right from the opening tip with eight of those lead changes and three of those ties coming in the first half alone. No team was able to separate to larger than a five-point lead until an 11-4 run by the Skyhawks to close the half put UT Martin up by seven at the break, 39-32.
The three-ball proved crucial for the Skyhawks in the opening minutes, particularly from Desmond Williams off the bench, who drained three of UT Martin's six first-half threes.
UT Martin stretched its lead to 12 coming out of the break following a 6-0 run, but a jumper by senior Myles Burns sparked what would become a monstrous 24-4 from the 17:27 mark all the way until a 7:10 three-pointer by UT Martin's KJ Simon. Included in that stretch were three separate 7-0 runs, a 14-1 run, and a 17-2 advantage before the final 24-4 run that lasted 10:17 of game time.
Leading that charge were leading scorer Matthew Murrell (16 points, five rebounds, two assists, one steal) and Burns (13 points, eight rebounds, five steals, one block), who recorded nine and eight points each during the run, respectively.
That run was particularly beneficial due to Burns' fierce presence in the Rebels' zone defense, as he recorded three of his five steals and his one block during that stretch.
"Myles Burns was elite," Davis said. "I've had some great ones at the top of that zone, but at an early start he's about as great as I've ever seen getting hands on balls and being able to create offense from that."
The Skyhawks would not go quietly, though, immediately cutting the Rebel lead back down to three multiple times over their next two possessions. Another 7-0 Ole Miss run put the Rebels up 10 with 4:24 to play at 66-56, but even that could not put UT Martin down and out, as the Skyhawks mounted a 9-2 run to make it a three-point game yet again with just 1:20 to play at 68-65.
From here on, free throws became crucial for the Rebels, as its final four buckets came from the charity stripe via Robert Allen (nine points, seven rebounds) and TJ Caldwell (four points, four assists, two rebounds). All four ended up being the difference in the game, putting the Rebels ahead for good at 72-68.
"Really proud of our win," Davis said. "Told our team, there's not a lot of teams in basketball that's 4-0, and to be proud of that. We know where we are, and where we have to get to every single day."
Ole Miss now leaves Oxford for the first time this season, heading to ESPN's Wide World of Sports at Disney World for the ESPN Events Invitational. Action in Orlando runs from Nov. 24-27, with Ole Miss slated to open against Stanford on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 24) at 12:30 p.m. CT on ESPNU.