Golden Opportunity

It was almost a year ago, but Zach Graham remembers all too well.

Southern Miss, in a similar early December game, pushed Ole Miss to its limits in a highly-contested affair. Ole Miss had trailed most of the game, before engineering a fierce rally in the final minutes to win.

Chris Warren hit a 3-pointer to tie the score with 40 seconds remaining. After Southern Miss came up empty a possession later, Warren found a streaking Eniel Polynice for what would ultimately be the winning dunk with two seconds left.

The game was like so many others with Southern Miss – nail-biting and down to the wire. The Rebels, to their credit, hold a 17-5 advantage in the overall series. They've won all eight in Oxford. But claiming those wins, it seems, is never easy.

"Every time we play Southern Miss, it's an intense game," Graham said. "I know they're going to be ready to come in here and give us a fight. I know it's not going to be an easy game. Every time we play them, it's like a dog fight. We've got to be ready for that."

Zach Graham

Head coach Andy Kennedy welcomes the in-state bout between the schools. Ole Miss and Southern Miss are meeting for the fourth time in five years. Next season, the Rebels travel to Hattiesburg.

To Kennedy, this game brings attention to basketball in what is usually a football-dominated month. And with both teams in need of resume-building non-conference wins, the intrigue has only been ratcheted up that much more.

Ole Miss is 3-2 overall. Southern Miss boasts a spotless 5-0 record.

"I know this: No. 1, I know it brings attention to basketball in our state," Kennedy said, "and in the month of December, which is good for everybody. I know, No. 2, at the end of the game, we'll know more about our team and (Southern Miss head coach Larry Eustachy) will know more about his, because it's going to be a hotly-contested game. It's going to prepare us as we move forward in the season."

Eustachy's team is averaging 84.4 points per game, not to mention a 27.8 margin of victory. This isn't the same Southern Miss team that, in previous seasons, toed the line between near contention and consistent mediocrity.

Gary Flowers leads four players in double-figure points with a 21.0 average. R.L. Horton adds 15.6 points per game. Joismar Ayarza and D.J. Newbill follow with 11.6 and 11.2 points per game, respectively.

"From watching them on tape, I feel they're very strong, talented, deep," Kennedy said. "(Eustachy) has got good senior leadership. He starts four guys who've been in that program and have been productive in that program for quite some time. I think his depth is better than it's been.

"We know what we're going to get. We're going to get a well-coached, disciplined, tough team. They're athletic. They're versatile. It'll be quite a challenge."

These Golden Eagles are contenders in Conference USA. It's a fact not lost on Kennedy. Ole Miss, having already lost two games to Dayton and Miami, has to protect home floor against a team considered, at least through five games, a quality opponent.

Andy Kennedy

"The biggest discouragement is that we've (already) given up one (game) at home, which certainly puts you behind the eight ball a little," Kennedy said.

"The reality is, though, we've played five games. There's quite a journey still to be had. We certainly challenged ourselves early with a very competitive schedule. We did that in order to find out about who we are. I think we're finding that out."

Bouncing back:

Ole Miss lost its second game of the season Tuesday at Miami. And if not for a valiant second-half comeback, the final score wouldn't have been close.

"The Miami game was educational in the fact that it was the first road game," Kennedy said. "I wanted to see how we were going to approach it. I didn't like the energy in the locker room. There was a quiet, a stillness that I hadn't seen before in this team.

"To be honest with you, I didn't know if that was a good thing or bad thing until the game started. I didn't know if it was a quiet confidence that we were going to go out there and do what we had practiced doing. I came to find out it was a bit of nervousness. We were tentative early."

Because the Rebels trailed by 30 at halftime. They were dominated on the glass in the first half, as Miami's Reggie Johnson controlled the post with a double-double. Johnson finished the game with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

Ole Miss used a 29-8 run in the second half, reducing the Miami lead to 79-70. But Durand Scott, who led all scorers with 27 points, converted four free throws down the stretch to preserve an 86-73 victory.

"In the back of my mind, I thought we were going to come back and win," sophomore forward Reginald Buckner, who had four points and four rebounds in the loss, said. "They let up on us. I just thought we were going to come back and win."

But as with every yearly basketball schedule, an opportunity to rebound awaits a few days later. Ole Miss has its chance Saturday, four days after the struggles at Miami.

"We learned some things about ourselves from being on the road for the first time," Kennedy said. "I didn't like the way we started. Hopefully we can get that corrected."

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