December 31, 2007

The Sixth Man: Success in Southaven

Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy has made it a point to take his team to the people of Mississippi this season.

First the Rebels went south to Jackson, where the team hadn't played since 1989, and took care of business against Winthrop.

Then on Friday, No. 22 Ole Miss traveled north on I-55 to the DeSoto Civic Center in Southaven, where the Rebels took on Southern Miss.

In front of a pro-Ole Miss crowd of 7,200, the Rebels dispatched Southern Miss 78-58.

Kennedy said the event was a major success for reasons in addition to the Rebel victory.

"I'm a native of this state, and I can speak very frank about this," Kennedy said. "Anything that brings attention to two of the three major universities in the state before you get into league play, it's good for the state of Mississippi."

Ole Miss and Southern Miss will meet again in each of the next two years, possibly playing in Biloxi or Jackson.

"Nothing is set. We want to do north, central, and south," Kennedy said. "We want to do what's best for both programs, and we want to do what people are responding to."

One group of people who responded positively was the Rebel players.

Senior Dwayne Curtis said it was a treat to have such a boisterous Ole Miss crowd - especially after competing in front of sparse crowds during the San Juan Shootout.

"The difference was that it was a loud crowd. I really enjoyed it coming from San Juan," Curtis said. "If you'd have seen the court, you'd know how much we enjoyed this.

"It was night and day."

Freshman Chris Warren said he enjoyed playing in Southaven, and he didn't envy Southern Miss.

"It was a great atmosphere," he said, "and luckily, it was all for us."

Kennedy agreed, saying everything that went into the game proved to be a positive experience, including the DeSoto Civic Center itself.

"I thought the crowd was tremendous. This is the best venue in the state of Mississippi, or at least, the best I've seen," Kennedy said. "They put on a quality event, and we'll be back."

Foul mood

While Kennedy was pleased with the event, some of the play on the court left him less than glowing.

Kennedy said his team needs to find ways to play better defense on the ball.

"We just have to stop fouling," he said. "We try to be so aggressive defensively, and this is becoming a disturbing pattern."

The Rebels (12-0) committed 23 personal fouls in the game, and are averaging 19.4 fouls per game.

Some of the credit for the Rebels' foul issues has to go to the Southern Miss backcourt.

Jeremy Wise and R.L. Horton went right at Ole Miss, forcing the action and combing to shoot 17 of the Golden Eagles' 29 free throws.

"They came out aggressive and ready to make plays," Warren said. "They do a good job of drawing fouls. They were on the free-throw line the whole game."

Busy B

Warren, for the first time this season, found himself hampered with foul trouble late in the game. Luckily for the Rebels, senior guard Brian Smith was ready to go.

Smith came off the bench to make a pair of three-point shots in the second half, helping Ole Miss pull away for the win.

Kennedy said Smith stepped up just when his team needed him to.

"Smitty plays every game in a limited role, and I think he's our 10th guy. Tonight, he helped us," Kennedy said. "Usually when he comes in, it's to spell Chris. Tonight, we needed him to do more than sustain us.

"We went to Brian Smith, and he responded like you want seniors to do."

Smith said he doesn't need to know exactly what Kennedy will need him to do; he tries to stay ready.

"I just try to prepare myself each day," he said. "When I get my name called, I could play heavy minutes or I might not play heavy minutes. I know that. I've been doing this for the past few years. I'm just ready to do whatever."

For Smith, it felt good to come in and help Ole Miss get to 12-0 for the first time in school history.

"We're not going to look back, but I'm taking it all in as a senior," he said. "It feels good setting school records like this, especially with us all playing together."

Smith, along with the rest of the Rebel bench continues to be a major strength for the team.

"It's the whole point of having depth," Eniel Polynice said. "The more depth you have, the more games you'll win.

"If we have guys hurt, tired or in foul trouble, we've got guys ready to come in and help us out. We're just as good."

You can't spell Rebel without Reb.

Ole Miss has been the most effective team on the glass all season, out-rebounding all but one team (Ole Miss and DePaul each grabbed 45 rebounds).

Friday against Southern Miss, Ole Miss grabbed 51 rebounds to Southern Miss' 37. The Golden Eagles' lead Conference USA in rebounding and rebounding margin.

But against Ole Miss, the Rebels were too much on the glass.

Polynice led everyone with 13 rebounds. In his last three games, he's pulled down 29 rebounds.

"He's taken his rebounding to another level," Kennedy said.

Polynice finished one assist shy of a triple-double.

Kennedy said the Rebels rebounding success parallels the team's success in the win-loss columns.

"We thought whoever won the battle on the boards would win the war," he said. "Tonight, we held serve."

Tip-ins

• With the win, Ole Miss ties a school record for consecutive wins with 12. The previous record was set in 1926 and ended when the Rebels fell to North Carolina in the Southern Conference Tournament 38-23.

• Curtis finished with 15 points, second behind Warren's 17. Curtis has scored double-digit points in 11 of the Rebels' 12 games.

• After starting the season red hot, freshman Trevor Gaskins continued to struggle Friday. In his last four games, Gaskins is just 5-for-25 from the field. For the second-straight game, Gaskins came off the bench.

• Fox News anchor and former Ole Miss student Shepard Smith attended the game.


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