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Rebels get Saiz back for stretch run

Now that Andy Kennedy has his big man back, Ole Miss’ men’s basketball coach isn’t taking any chances.

Sebastian Saiz traveled with the team to Florida on Monday and returned to the court in Tuesday’s 77-72 loss to the Gators — his first action in more than three weeks. But the air pressure from the plane ride to Gainesville, Florida, “bothered” the junior forward’s surgically repaired right eye, Kennedy said, so the team had a staffer drive Saiz back to Oxford immediately after the game.

“We walk out of the gym at midnight, and he drives back,” Kennedy said.

Saiz missed the previous six games after having an operation on a partially detached retina, an injury that started with an eye poke against Memphis on Dec. 18 and gradually got worse. Before Ole Miss’ game at LSU on Jan. 13, Saiz began to see what he described as “a shadow” in his eye, a sign that his retina was starting to detach.

Saiz went under the knife the following week and was held out of all basketball-related activities until being cleared by doctors Monday. He had four points and six rebounds in 26 minutes against Florida despite playing with an air bubble that’s been inserted to keep pressure on the retina until the natural fluid returns to his eye.

“I didn’t pick up a basketball for three weeks,” Saiz said. “That was the first time I was back playing basketball.”

The Rebels went 3-3 in Saiz’s absence and lost out on what would’ve been a top-25 RPI win against the Gators (No. 23), according to the NCAA’s updated RPI rankings. Saiz also watched Ole Miss drop other golden opportunities to build its postseason resume against South Carolina (No. 26) and Kansas State (No. 42).

“The worst part was just me being on the bench thinking that I cannot help my team win,” Saiz said. “There are so many games that we could’ve won just from me being on the court.”

Ready to help
But Ole Miss (15-9, 5-6 Southeastern Conference) will have Saiz’s 12.3 points and 9.6 rebounds a game for a home stretch the Rebels will have to be nearly flawless in to have any kind of chance to get back on the NCAA tournament bubble. Ole Miss, ranked 87th in the RPI, has seven games left before the SEC tournament starting with Saturday’s home date with Arkansas (12-12, 5-6).

“(Saiz’s return) helps us offensively, and defensively it allows us to be a little more aggressive,” Kennedy said.

The Rebels will follow that with a trip to Texas A&M (No. 19) on Tuesday and still have road games at Auburn, Georgia and Tennessee. Equipped with goggles to protect what vision he has back that he said he’ll wear for the rest of his career, Saiz is determined to stay on the floor.

“I’m playing with one eye even if somebody’s got to tell me what to do or something,” Saiz said. “I don’t care.”