Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Whippin’ Wildcats: Rebels hang on to upset No. 24 Kentucky at home

You can’t stop Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks, you can only hope to contain him.

If the Rebels wanted a chance to defeat the No. 24 Kentucky Wildcats they were going to have to do just that, contain the Southeastern Conference’s leading scorer.

Tuesday the Rebels (11-9 overall, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) did just that in their 85-80 upset victory over No. 24 Kentucky (16-5, 5-1) at C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum.

Entering the game, Kentucky’s junior had been averaging 26.1 points per game and had only been held to 22 points or less in a game eight times.

Thanks to a slew of defensive strategies and pressure defense, Meeks was just 4-for-15 from the field for 21 points (six points came in the waning moments of the game with Ole Miss’ reserves on the court).

The man in charge of defending Meeks, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy’s pick for National Player of the Year, was sophomore Zach Graham.

“I thought (Graham) was tremendous. The game plan was we were really going to team-defend and he was going to chase (Jodie) Meeks. We were going to try to sag. We weren’t going to chase the other bigs away from the perimeter,” Kennedy said. “I thought our guys carried the game plan out as to not giving him easy touches, and then when he dribbled it we were going to have two guys at the ball.”

“They played a lot of zone, they played a little 2-3 zone and little box-and-one, but mostly man-to-man,” Kentucky coach Billy Gillespie said. “That’s when they played their best, when they played us man-to-man.”

Ole Miss’ players and coaches made no attempt to hide the fact that stopping Meeks was the focus of their practices.

“He’s a great player and all week we’ve been practicing how to guard Jodie,” Graham said. “We’ve had sections of our practice, 30 minutes, just on how to guard Jodie.

“Just me working on face-guarding him and everybody else making sure they help off screens.”

Ole Miss also focused on limiting Meeks’ touches, which seemed to be working in the first half. Meeks was 0-for-6 from the field, with six points coming from free throws.

“I think the more touches Jodie has, the more opportunities he’s going to have to hurt you,” Graham said. “We limited those touches so it helped us in the long-run.”

Although Meeks didn’t play against the Rebels a year ago, Graham was familiar with Meeks dating back to his high school days in Suwanee, Ga. at Peachtree Ridge High, where he said he faced Meeks’s Norcross High team six times from his freshman to junior year. Graham also said the two standout prep players played on the Georgia Hurricanes AAU team together and that he was surprised there wasn’t more yapping between the two Georgians on Tuesday.

“There wasn’t a lot of talking going on,” Graham said. “I thought we were going to talk more, but it was strictly business tonight.”

Asking around the locker room, it’s unclear whether players were more surprised Meeks was held to under 40 points or that Ole Miss was able to pull out the victory.
“Yeah, it was pretty scary. The whole team was saying, ‘Meeks, he’s going to get 40 tonight,”’ Ole Miss’ Terrico White said jokingly about the Rebels’ predictions prior to the game.

Huertas comes on strong

Ole Miss led early, but an 8-2 run by Kentucky to close the half gave the Wildcats a 39-37 lead at the break.

Ole Miss’ David Huertas struggled in the first half, shooting 0-for-3 from the field with two made free throws. Due to two quick fouls, Huertas was limited to just six minutes in the first half.

The junior’s luck quickly changed in the second half when he drained a 3-pointer to put Ole Miss ahead 40-39. As the game heated up, so did Huertas, who finished the game shooting 5-for-15 for 21 points.

Kennedy said Huertas rebounding was pivotal for Ole Miss’ success.

“I know without David (Huertas) being productive it’s very difficult for this team,” Kennedy said. “But what a second half he had by making huge shot after huge shot.”

Gillespie echoed Kennedy’s sentiments.

“It’s hard to score from the bench,” Gillespie said. “He got two quick fouls and he came right out at halftime and they had the first possession and we didn’t guard him well enough. He made that 3, probably got a little confidence, and he just continued on. He made extremely hard cuts.”

Malcolm stands out

Malcolm White came to Ole Miss with big-time hype.

Tuesday night the sophomore center cashed in on his potential, registering a career-high 20 points, while also collecting six rebounds and making one block.

“Where’s that guy been? He was the guy we needed him to be tonight,” Kennedy said. “As a coach you want to infuse confidence in the players, but it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes they have to feel good about their performance. I know Malcolm was tremendous tonight.

“He played 36 minutes, stayed out of foul trouble, and was flying all over. Hopefully this is the impetus that he needs to be the player that we need him to be.”

Ahead 62-57, White scored on a putback of a Terrico White missed 3-point attempt. On the ensuing Kentucky possession Malcolm White made a big block on DeAndre Liggins out of bounds.

On Ole Miss’ next trip down the court, Malcolm White made two free throws to extend Ole Miss’ lead to 66-57.

In addition to Malcom White’s 20 points and Huertas’ 21, Terrico White also contributed 21 points on seven of 15 shooting from the field.

Kentucky’s big-man, Patrick Patterson, finished with a game-high 24 points on eight of 12 shooting from the field. He also grabbed seven rebounds.

Tuesday’s victory was the Rebels’ first win against Kentucky since Ole Miss won 65-55 in Oxford in 2001. The win also snapped a three-game skid for the Rebels that included losses at South Carolina and Alabama, and at home against LSU.

Ole Miss returns to action Saturday when it travels to Starkville to face Mississippi State at noon. The game is scheduled to be televised on Raycom.

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