High-scoring Davis, Mississippi back on NCAA tourney bubble

Mississippi head coach Andy Kennedy reacts during an NCAA college basketball game against LSU in Oxford, Miss., Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. (Bruce Newman/Oxford Eagle via AP)

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) Mississippi’s Terence Davis has made the leap from solid role player to go-to scorer.

The 6-foot-4 sophomore’s emergence is a big reason the Rebels find themselves in a familiar February position: Sliding around on the NCAA Tournament bubble, desperate for a few big wins to prove they’re worthy of a spot in the Big Dance.

”We have put ourselves in this predicament many times,” said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who is in his 11th season with the Rebels. ”It’s up to us to finish the season strong and we’ve got opportunities in front of us. We still control our own destiny.”

Ole Miss (16-10, 7-6 Southeastern Conference) is about to enter a crucial juncture of the season with two straight road games against Arkansas (19-7, 8-5) on Saturday and rival Mississippi State (14-11, 5-8) on Tuesday.

The Rebels probably need to win both to move into serious NCAA Tournament consideration. One win is absolutely mandatory.

”We’re about as whole as we can be,” Kennedy said. ”We understand our roles. The challenge is becoming more consistent.”

Davis will almost certainly have to play well for the Rebels to make the NCAA Tournament for a third time in five seasons. He started the season coming off the bench, but quickly moved into the starting lineup because of his knack for scoring.

Over the past week, his production has exploded with two straight career highs in scoring. He poured in 26 points against Auburn and 33 more against LSU while shooting a combined 24 of 35 (68.6 percent) from the field.

”Really, it all comes down to confidence,” Davis said. ”You have to earn it. Right now you can tell (Kennedy) has that confidence in me and I’m confident in myself.”

Davis was a football and basketball star in high school in Southaven, Mississippi, which is only about an hour from the Ole Miss campus. He had scholarship offers to play both sports in college and only recently turned his full concentration to basketball.

A receiver during his football days, Davis flashes that speed and power on the basketball court, embracing contact and finishing at the rim against bigger defenders. He never seems to tire, endlessly bouncing around the court.

”He’s as good as we’ve had during my time at finding his way to the basket and finishing,” Kennedy said. ”I can’t teach that. He has a gift. He’s obviously athletic and he has a knack for contorting his body and finding angles to score.”

Now Davis is working on his decision making. The spectacular plays are still interspersed with frustrating ones, like the time against Memphis earlier this year when he passed up a simple dunk to try a 360 when the game was tied late in the second half.

Davis missed, but was fouled. He made the free throws and the Rebels went on to win the game.

Kennedy’s eyes nearly popped out of his head when Davis went for the 360, adamant that it was a moment of dunk artistry that was unnecessary in a tight game. Davis knew immediately he had messed up.

”The next day I was at coach’s office to talk with him,” Davis said. ”He said that sometimes he forgets I’m just 19 years old. He just asked how I would have felt if I had missed the free throws and we had lost by one.

”And he’s right, I would have been sick.”

For now, Kennedy will live with the occasional immature moments. Over the past few weeks, the good has far outweighed the bad.

”He’s got a great motor,” Kennedy said. ”And every great player I’ve ever been around has that same internal drive and fire.”

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