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COLUMN: Young Rebels have to grow up fast

The season for Ole Miss’ men’s basketball team is at a crossroads.

The Rebels are fresh off their third straight loss, but that’s just scratching the surface of their problems. The latest setback was the most painful for the Rebels in every sense of the word.

Ole Miss didn’t have the Southeastern Conference’s second-leading rebounder nor its best defender against South Carolina on Tuesday. Sebastian Saiz had surgery that morning on a partially detached retina stemming from an injury he suffered against Memphis back in December while an eye injury to Martavious Newby flared up just hours before the game.

If that weren’t enough, the one player the Rebels can’t afford to lose, Stefan Moody, grabbed his hamstring late in regulation with Ole Miss up double digits on the 24th-ranked Gamecocks. Moody was nowhere near the same and eventually came out for good in overtime, a game that got there because nobody else could score down the stretch as the Rebels coughed up an 11-point lead with 4:13 left in regulation before falling 77-74 in overtime.

“When he grabbed his hamstring, from that moment forward, we were trying to get somebody else to step up, and we just couldn’t get that,” head coach Andy Kennedy said afterward.

Kennedy wasn’t sure immediately after Tuesday’s game how long he would possibly be without 60 percent of his starting lineup, though we should know something a little more definitive today.

Kennedy sounded the most optimistic about Newby, saying afterward, “I thought he was going to go today,” but Newby is dealing with pressure build-up that will have to subside.

The Rebels played the final 1:58 of overtime with three true freshmen (Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey, Terence Davis and J.T. Escobar) and a sophomore (Marcanvis Hymon) rotating in with Anthony Perez, Rasheed Brooks and little-used forward Terry Brutus, a mixture of youth that can’t play like freshmen and sophomores if the Rebels hope to stay afloat with their key pieces ailing.

Coming on?
There were some encouraging signs Tuesday.

Hymon got the start in Saiz’s place and made the most of his career-high 42 minutes, scoring 10 points and grabbing nine rebounds. Fitzpatrick-Dorsey played 12 minutes and posted season-highs in points (6) and assists (3) in just his seventh game since joining the team midseason.

The 6-foot-4 Davis has gotten his most extensive playing time lately with the Rebels’ bench shortening up, flashing the athleticism that’s got coaches excited about his future. He finished through contact for an old-fashioned 3-point play in the first half and ended up with seven points, two boards and two assists in 24 minutes.

Brooks, the Rebels’ third-leading scorer, can’t go 0 for 10 from the floor like he did Tuesday, and Ole Miss needs more consistency from stretch forwards Tomasz Gielo (34.8 field-goal percentage, 31.3 percent from 3) and Perez, who’s up-and-down career continued with a 16-point, six-rebound night against the Gamecocks before fouling out late.

But even a healthy Rebel team needs more contributions from players not named Moody and Saiz, something Kennedy has been pleading for all season. Unless you’re Duke, Kentucky or Kansas, it’s usually not ideal to look to your youngsters for that help, but the Rebels don’t have much of a choice right now.

“We are what we are,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got to play the hand that’s dealt us.”

To say the NCAA Tournament is a longshot for this team at this point is an understatement.

Even if the Rebels manage to stop the bleeding some Saturday at Mississippi State and reel off some wins without their main cogs, those victories have to have substance. The Rebels, who have just two top-100 RPI wins according to the NCAA’s latest RPI rankings, just lost out on chances at top-50 RPI victories against Florida and Carolina, making games at Kansas State (59 RPI), at Florida (20) and at Texas A&M (7) virtual must-wins and a perfect record at home the rest of the way non-negotiable.

Saying that’s a tall task is another understatement, and Ole Miss’ youngsters will have to grow up in a hurry to give the Rebels any kind of realistic shot.