OXFORD, Miss. - Ole Miss women’s basketball fought hard until the end, but a 9-0 fourth quarter run propelled Georgia to a 58-51 win over the Rebels at The Pavilion on Thursday night.
“Tough one tonight,” said Ole Miss head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin. “We had three keys this game: focus on boxing out and rebounding, play hard and leave everything out on the floor, and have positive touches, positive body language and a united front. I thought that we hit those three keys today.”
Both teams came with unbridled energy right out of the gate, as the squads traded runs in a blinding first quarter of action. Ole Miss (7-7, 0-1 SEC) took charge immediately, going on a 7-0 run to start the game, but Georgia (10-4, 1-0 SEC) responded with a 13-0 run of their own to settle in.
The Rebels did not falter, though, closing the frame on an 8-0 run thanks to timely three-point shooting to take a 15-13 lead by the quarter’s end thanks to a buzzer-beater three by Deja Cage (14 points, four rebounds, two assists, one steal, 3-of-8 3PT). Ole Miss shot 3-of-6 from three-point distance in that first quarter, but would only shoot 3-of-14 the remainder of the game as both teams settled in for a defensive bout.
The Rebels caught another momentum-swinging buzzer-beater to end the first half from Taylor Smith, giving Ole Miss a 28-27 lead at the break. Defense was the name of the game in the third quarter as both teams shot a combined 8-of-28 (.286) from the field, but it was the fourth quarter where the Lady Bulldogs were able to break away.
A Valerie Nesbitt (15 points, four rebounds, three steals) layup with 7:16 to play would be the last Rebel points for nearly four minutes of the final frame as Georgia went on a 9-0 run to separate for good. The key moment of this run came not much later at 6:20 when Georgia’s Stephanie Paul (18 points, three rebounds) converted an and-one on a foul in the lane.
Paul, who led all scorers on Thursday night, poured in 14 of her 18 points in the second half. Nesbitt led the Rebels with her 15 points, her ninth double-digit game of the season. Cage’s 14 points stand as her ninth in double figures as well, and freshman Jayla Alexander contributed eight points and three assists in her third career start.
Ole Miss was ferocious on defense, forcing 11 steals on the night – the fifth time this year that the Rebels have eclipsed double-digit steals. Three Rebels recorded at least three, including Nesbitt, who leads the SEC in steals. Others recording three as career-highs in steals were sophomore Iyanla Kitchens (6 points four rebounds, three steals) and junior Dominique Banks (five rebounds, three steals, one block, one assist).
“We kept them off-balance,” McPhee-McCuin said. “We kept changing up our defense. I thought that caused them some problems. We have some deficiencies with our size, and so we kept changing it up on them and I thought that made them uncomfortable. We have to scheme and over-prepare, and I thought we did a good job keeping them at bay.”
Ole Miss now hits the road for a contest on primetime television when it travels to No. 11 Texas A&M (13-1, 1-0 SEC) on Monday (Jan. 6), with tipoff set for 6 p.m. CT on SEC Network.
“A lot we can learn from,” McPhee-McCuin said. “We’re going to have to continue to fight and be gritty and build towards what we want. But, I was pleased with our effort and I thought we had opportunities to win, we just didn’t make plays and they did.”