Minutes before the game, both teams formed lines for the anthem. As "The Star-Spangled Banner" began, six Rebels players -- who appeared to be KJ Buffen, D.C. Davis, Brian Halums, Luis Rodriguez, Devontae Shuler and Bruce Stevens -- knelt one by one. Two more players -- appearing to be Breein Tyree and Franco Miller Jr. -- took a knee on the song's final line.
The game was being played while two pro-Confederacy groups organized a march onto the campus in Oxford, Mississippi.
"The majority of it was we saw one of our teammates doing it and we just didn't want him to be alone,'' Ole Miss scoring leader Tyree said after his team's 72-71 victory. "We're just tired of these hate groups coming to our school and portraying our campus like it's our actual university having these hate groups in our school."
Tyree followed up his comments with a tweet later Saturday:
To the people that fight for this country, my teammates and I meant no disrespect to everything that you do for us, but we had to take a stand to the negative things that went on today on our campus. #WeNeedChange— Breein Tyree (@Breety5) February 23, 2019
Various student groups held counterprotests on campus on Thursday and Friday. Saturday's march, led by pro-Confederate groups Confederate 901 and the Hiwaymen, also drew counterprotesters. The march began at the Confederate monument on the city square and ended at another Confederate monument in the heart of the Ole Miss campus.
Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis said he wasn't aware beforehand that players were going to kneel.
"This was all about the hate groups that came to our community to try to spread racism and bigotry," Davis said. "It's created a lot of tension for our campus. Our players made an emotional decision to show these people they're not welcome on our campus, and we respect our players' freedom and ability to choose that.''
Ole Miss' Davis: We respect our players' freedom to choose
Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis and guard Breein Tyree explain the decision to kneel in protest of the hate groups on the Ole Miss campus.
When he was introduced as Ole Miss' coach last March, Davis said his team would be one that "respects the flag and the national anthem." Davis also emphasized standing for the national anthem in his previous position at Middle Tennessee State.
Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said he had a discussion with the players about the on-campus protest.
"These people that come here and they spill hate and bigotry and racism, we don't want them on our campus. Our players stood up for that," Bjork said. "It had nothing to do with the anthem. It had nothing to do with anything beyond, 'We don't want those people here. They're protesting during our game, and that's not right because that's not the Ole Miss that I know.'
"We talked to them about that in the locker room. We support them because we don't want those people here, either. The university doesn't want them. Our town doesn't want them. They're out of state. They're not from here. So good for the players to stand up and make a statement."
The protesters gathered around a monument on campus with police closely observing. The groups was kept separated from about 50 counterprotesters, and there were no reports of violence. The groups departed while the game was in the second half.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.