NASHVILLE: If you didn’t know any better, the two teams slugging it out in the SEC Tournament’s opening-round game were fighting for postseason positioning instead of finishing off losing campaigns. Ole Miss and South Carolina left it all on the floor, Wednesday, but in the end, it was the Rebels earning the encore performance while the Gamecocks were left to watch the curtain fall on their 2022-23 season.
GG Jackson did his best to extend USC’s stay in the Music City by dropping 24 points, 16 of which came in the second half as the Gamecocks were trying to come from behind. Hayden Brown scored 11 points in his final collegiate game.
Following the game, Jackson and Brown, the budding star and the grizzled veteran, shared an embrace. “I’ve never had a big brother in my life,” Jackson said, “We fought hard tonight and I wanted to thank him for being that big brother for me.”
For long stretches, USC (11-21) had the look of a team that wanted to play spoiler in Nashville. Despite falling behind early due to eight turnovers in the first four minutes of play, the Gamecocks settled in, committing just two turnovers the rest of the way and showing flashes of brilliance as they mounted a comeback. Meechie Johnson fed Jackson for a dunk that gave Carolina a 46-44 lead midway through the second half. Johnson (13 points, 5 assists) gave his defenders fits and forced Ole Miss to run a second player at him to disrupt the offensive flow. The strategy worked. USC looked out of sorts once Johnson passed out of the double team and Ole Miss pounced. The Gamecocks short-circuited for a time while the Rebels pressed the advantage, resulting in a 12-2 run from which USC never recovered.
Head coach Lamont Paris drew up some nifty inbounds plays and found innovative ways to get Jackson isolated, but Ole Miss answered back every time Carolina built momentum. “Our guys competed and played extremely hard. It was a really good college basketball game,” Paris said, “They made one more run than we did.”
The Rebels struggled to find clean looks most of the night as Paris mixed in a zone, but Ole Miss got hot from the perimeter in the second half, sinking some contested 3-pointers. After shooting just 31% from behind the arc in the regular season, Ole Miss hit 9 of 21 (41%) in Nashville, including 5 of 9 in the second half.
The final record is not pretty, but Paris thinks a proper foundation has been laid for future success. Brown backed up his coach, “I am so excited, honestly, to see where Coach Paris takes this program. They’re gonna win. They’re gonna win and they’re going to be a team people don’t like to see on their schedule.”