Going into Saturday’s Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic game between Indiana State and Mississippi, Ole Miss big men Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner loomed over the proceedings in much the same way the Diamond Head volcano itself stands sentinel over Honolulu.
Unlike the volcano, the Rebels’ rebounding wrecking crew is anything but dormant.
Holloway averages 10.7 rebounds per game. Buckner is good for eight per game. Both players were gigantic in ways ISU is not at present.
“Those two guys are NBA-caliber players. Watching film on them? I was scared to death to tell the truth. I didn’t know how we’d do against them,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
Along with chirpy gunner Marshall Henderson, the Rebels had ridden the duo to an 8-1 record entering the holiday tournament.
No matter what personnel ISU would’ve had on hand, Holloway and Buckner demanded ISU’s respect.
But in truth, the plaudits for Holloway and Buckner expose an unspoken tacit admission. Though the Ole Miss duo is excellent, one reason they were so feared is because ISU’s post players — Justin Gant and Jake Kitchell — have given opponents little reason to fear them.
Gant has shown glimpses of the potential he possesses, notably against UCLA and Winthrop. Kitchell has struggled in all facets so far.
But in Saturday’s 87-85 overtime victory over the Rebels, the Sycamores’ inside duo showed what they were capable of. They stared down the 10th-leading rebounding team in the nation and never blinked.
Gant had his first career double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Kitchell had a season-high five rebounds. Both did so without getting into foul trouble. In fact, Holloway was the only player in the game who fouled out.
“A game like this definitely gives you confidence. It shows what your pros are, but it also shows what you need to work on,” said an unassuming Gant after the game.
It wasn’t just Gant. It was a significant step forward for ISU’s duo.
“We were looking forward to battling those guys to see where we were at. We fought the entire game and we helped to wear them down. They got us sometimes, but for the most part, I think we did a pretty decent job,” Kitchell said.
Holloway (13 rebounds) and Buckner (10 rebounds) were too good to be completely knocked out of the box, but Gant and Kitchell were able to put ISU in a position to match their rebounding.
Other than a brief period in the second half where Holloway and Buckner were flashing into the paint off jumpers from the free throw line, Gant and Kitchell had to be accounted for by the Rebels’ big men on block-outs. If Gant and Kitchell didn’t get the rebound, another Sycamore was free to get it in their place.
The result? ISU was only outrebounded 46-45 in the contest.
“Justin Gant is a very good basketball player and if he competes like that, if he wants to compete and stick his nose in there, he’s going to be a really good player. Kitch gave us quality minutes off the bench, fought like crazy and got some key rebounds,” Lansing said.
Both Gant and Kitchell were aggressive, a trait that comes and goes for the sophomores. What’s maddening for ISU observers is the inconsistency. But success breeds success. If ISU ever wants to put in tape to show Gant and Kitchell what they’re capable of, the win against Ole Miss provides plenty of evidence.
“People forget, but [Gant] is a young guy too. He was well-coached at Terre Haute North, but guys coming out of high school, especially bigger guys, they don’t have to play that hard all the time,” Lansing said.
“They’re the biggest and best players on the floor and officiating can make them passive. [Gant] is very talented. If he learns the physical and competitiveness side, and does it all the time on a more consistent basis? He’ll be a really good player here for a long time,” Lansing said.
Both Gant and Kitchell said they took it as a personal quest to prove themselves in the paint against high-caliber foes. Now that they’ve done it, the trick is doing it again.
“I think we have to have that same mentality in every game now. Now we can know we can do it against some of the best bigs in the country. We have to have that mindset to dominate the glass and to be physical,” Kitchell said.
If Gant and Kitchell can bring the kind of effort and consistency on a regular basis that they brought to the table against Ole Miss, ISU will be in good stead.
They’ve done it once against high-caliber competition. Now they know they can do it again.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please follow him on Twitter @TribStarTodd.