After a month full of heartbreak and frustration, the Ole Miss women’s basketball team took it all out on the 14th-ranked team in the country, besting Kentucky, 72-60, at The Pavilion on Thursday evening.
Ole Miss (8-7, 2-7 SEC) received a dominant outing from junior Shakira Austin, but it was the combined effort of the entire team that helped lead the Rebels to an impressive 49-34 edge on the glass and a 42-20 advantage in the paint. The Rebels yielded 26 points to reigning SEC Player of the Year, Rhyne Howard, but she was stifled to 2-of-10 from beyond the arc while Kentucky shot 6-of-26 from deep.
It was a bit of déjà vu for the Rebels, whose last ranked victory came at No. 16 Kentucky on Jan. 13, 2019 (55-49). Additionally, it was the first home ranked win for Ole Miss since beating No. 25 Oregon on Dec. 14, 2016 (83-67), its largest SEC win since Feb. 26, 2017 vs. Texas A&M (62-49), its biggest win vs. Kentucky since Feb. 22, 2001 (75-54, in Lexington) and biggest at home vs. the Wildcats since Jan. 2, 1997 (83-52). The last three Rebel wins in the series have all come while the Wildcats have been nationally ranked.
“Extremely grateful for the win, extremely grateful for our players having resilience and not breaking,” said Ole Miss head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin. “I thought that they put together 40 minutes. We knew we were close because we had put together 25 minutes, and then 30 minutes, and then at LSU we put together 39 minutes, so the focus for the last couple days was just on finishing, and I thought we did a good job of that tonight.”
Coach Yo is referring to a string of devastatingly close losses for the Rebels in SEC season, including two heartbreaking overtime losses to LSU, a narrow four-point loss to No. 14 Mississippi State, and a wrenching one-point loss at Tennessee that would have snapped a losing streak in Knoxville that dates back to the Reagan administration.
“(We) wanted it. We feel, as a team, like we have lost games. We don’t feel like a lot of people have beat us,” McPhee-McCuin said. “We were extremely tired of that, and that’s no knock on Kentucky. Listen, they’ve got one of the best players in the country and they’re ranked for a reason. They’re really good. But we’re really good, too.”
Austin, a member of the Lisa Leslie Award Preseason Watch List, finished with her 20th career double-double and fifth in an Ole Miss uniform, totaling 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting and 12 rebounds. Austin was extraordinary in the first half, scoring 17 points and nabbing seven boards as the Rebels took command of the game. Tonight’s heroics mark her second consecutive double-double, the first such repeat by a Rebel since Shandricka Sessom did so in December 2015.
“Last night, at the end of a text (from Austin) it was ‘Coach, let’s go get this one tomorrow. See you at shootaround,'” McPhee-McCuin said. “So I knew she would be focused and ready to go. She’s learning how to play and has adjusted to the physicality of the SEC, and this is just gonna be the beginning of her success.”
Mimi Reid broke through in a big way for the Rebels on Thursday, notching her first double-digit outing since December with 14 points and four assists. Donnetta Johnson was equally as clutch down the stretch, ending with 12 points on the night. Freshman Madison Scott was key on the boards, ending the night with nine points and eight rebounds following a game at LSU last Sunday where she hauled in the most rebounds by a Rebel since 2015 (16).
Both teams made it a point to attack the paint early as the lead changed multiple times in the opening four minutes. The Wildcats made four of five from the field going into the game’s first media timeout, leading 12-7 with 5:43 left in the opening quarter. With 3:06 left, Reid closed a five-point gap with a three-pointer to give Ole Miss its first lead at 15-14. Another three-pointer from Johnson gave Ole Miss an 8-0 run. A Kentucky floater at the buzzer made the game 17-16 in Ole Miss’ favor at the end of 10 minutes.
Quick back-to-back layups from Austin and Valerie Nesbitt (nine points, three rebounds, three assists) to begin the second quarter forced Kentucky to burn a timeout after giving the Rebels their largest lead of the contest, 21-16, just under 30 seconds in. The Rebels turned on the jets with five minutes left in the half, making four of five from the field to give themselves a seven-point cushion. Ole Miss began to heat up defensively as well, as they forced the Wildcats to go on a 1-of-7 field goal stretch and capitalized with an 8-0 run, giving Ole Miss a double-digit advantage just over two minutes left in the first half. Austin capped off a dominant first half with an easy layup that gave Ole Miss a 41-28 lead going into the locker room, their largest SEC halftime lead since January 2015.
Austin was a force in the middle, already totaling 17 points and seven rebounds. Reid added eight points while Johnson and Nesbitt had six a piece. The Rebels shot 53 percent (17-of-32) from the floor and crashed the boards with a dominant 23-12 edge. They also had 26 points come from the paint alone. Johnson made up three of 10 first half assists for the Rebels.
It didn’t take long for the Wildcats to get the game back within single digits, however, as a three-pointer and second chance put back forced Ole Miss to burn an early timeout, up 41-33. In a matter of minutes, Kentucky was within three of the Rebels after four consecutive made baskets. Despite going back up by six, Nesbitt found herself in foul trouble just four minutes into the second half. The Rebels took advantage of another Kentucky scoring skid to go up nine late in third, and later held a 55-47 advantage going into the final 10 minutes of play.
The Rebels spent the first three minutes of the fourth quarter trying to force shots at the shot clock buzzer, which proved mostly successful as Ole Miss went back up by eight with 6:23 left to play. Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard continued to pose a problem for the Rebels late into the game, but a 6-0 run capped off by a Johnson jumper gave Ole Miss just what they needed as they led 68-57 with 2:34 left to go. The Rebels refused to be denied the remainder of the contest, pulling off the upset on their home court.
“We’re not just playing games. Our young ladies are playing with a pressure to rewrite history, and I thought they got past that tonight by staying in the moment,” McPhee-McCuin said.