- Andy Katz, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Croatia jumped out on the Americans early, leading 6-0 and locking in defensively on the U.S., which missed its first seven shots. When the first quarter of the FIBA Under-19 World Championship semifinal game ended, the Croatians had the momentum and an 11-6 lead.
That is, until Terrico White snapped the U.S. out of its early funk.
White nailed consecutive 3s, making the kind of plays that made him the surprise pick as SEC Freshman of the Year at Ole Miss last season.
"We were dead in the water against Croatia, in a game to go to the finals," said USA assistant Chris Lowery, the head coach at Southern Illinois. "Then he comes in and hits those treys like it's nothing to him. He had no facial expression, no emotion. They were big-time pull-ups and that's what got us going."
The U.S. won the game 81-77 and went on to take home the gold with a win over Greece on July 12 in Auckland, New Zealand.
"Terrico did a tremendous job for us defending," Lowery said. "Andy [Kennedy of Ole Miss] has a great player. I'm not sure why so many people passed on him, but he's very, very talented."
That much is a given. The 6-foot-5 White was under-recruited coming out of high school in Memphis. He wasn't meant to be the go-to guy at Ole Miss as a freshman, either. Chris Warren, a consensus member of the All-SEC freshman team in 2008, was the lock to be the Rebels' starting point guard. Warren started the first 11 games before tearing his ACL in a game against Louisville in Cincinnati, leaving his 19.6 points, four assists and 2.5 steals behind. Warren's absence forced Kennedy to use White as the Rebels' primary ball handler.
"We didn't know how he'd react to being the primary lead guard," Kennedy said. "We knew he was capable of scoring. But we had to put him in that role to be comfortable. He got confident, grew in it and made plays."
The Rebels weren't just down Warren. Sophomore guard Trevor Gaskins suffered a torn ACL in preseason practice and was gone for the season. Like Warren, Gaskins was an All-SEC freshman player in 2008. Just a few days after the season opener, wing Eniel Polynice suffered a left knee injury that kept him out for the rest of the season, too.
That left White and David Huertas (who has since left to pursue a pro career in Puerto Rico), to lead the backcourt. They handled the responsibility, with scoring averages of 13.7 and 18.1 points, respectively. But with a depleted roster, the Rebels understandably struggled, finishing 7-9 in the SEC and 16-15 overall.
White isn't naive, and understood his newfound fame among college basketball folks did not go unnoticed by NBA personnel. He averaged 18.4 points in SEC games and made 2.9 3s a game. He scored 20 or more points nine times.
So he did what a lot of players do once they get some of that late-season pro buzz. He considered leaving school early for the NBA.
"It was close, very close," White said. "My mom [Delois Martin] and Coach Kennedy sat me down and we talked about me coming back and being higher in the next draft."
But White is savvy enough to know that had Warren been healthy for the entire season he wouldn't have even been in position to be a possible draft pick.
"That gave me a chance to shine," White said.
White said he has no idea how Kennedy is going to handle having White and Warren back together, since they barely played next to one another last season.
"I guess when Chris goes out, I'll play the one and when he plays the one, I'll grab the rebounds and go," White said.
"We had him at the two or the three and he had a couple of deals where he would catch the ball and jump over people, dunk over people," Lowery said. "He's like 'Cool Hand Luke.' He never gets high, never gets too low. It shows in his game. He could miss 10 shots in a row and miss the biggest shot and act like it's no sweat. That's his demeanor."
But don't be fooled. He cares. White wants to win, and with a healthy Warren, Polynice and Gaskins, tOle Miss will have a shot to possess one of the deepest backcourts in the SEC. While the Rebels lack a strong man inside -- or at least a reliable frontcourt scorer to match up with Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado, Arkansas' Michael Washington, Alabama's JaMychal Green or LSU's Tasmin Mitchell in the SEC West -- none of those squads have the potential scoring or athletic depth on the perimeter that Ole Miss does.
The Rebs are also waiting for Zach Graham to be cleared this summer. He wasn't hurt last season and averaged 8.5 points a game, but he tore his patella tendon and had surgery to repair it.
"The plan is for Terrico to help us off the ball," Kennedy said. "Once everyone is back on the floor and we get that continuity and confidence back, we'll be tough. We won't miss a beat."
A lot of that has to do with White's unexpected production last season, his contributions to a gold-medal team this summer and the likelihood that he's going to be a star in the SEC now that the focus is finally on him.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Terrico White was an unknown recruit with an uncertain future. Then an injury to an Ole Miss teammate gave him a chance. The gold medalist and SEC frosh of the year certainly seized the moment.