Mountain to Climb

ATLANTA, Ga. -- Andy Kennedy sat at the podium in the bowels of the Georgia Dome Thursday to meet reporters following Ole Miss' 66-55 win over South Carolina, doing his best to hide smiles as he answered questions.

The Rebels (20-12) were fresh off their first win in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in three years. They had gotten revenge on a Gamecock team that won the only meeting between the schools in the regular season -- its lone win over its last 10 games.

Kennedy had reason to be excited. Here he was, a coach privy to the criticisms surrounding his tenure despite the four 20-win seasons he's produced in his five years at Ole Miss. He looked reenergized, somewhat relieved.

Ole Miss, the No. 3 seed from the West, has at least one more game left, against East No. 2 seed Kentucky (22-8) Friday at 2:30 p.m. CT.

"I'm really looking forward to it," he said of facing Kentucky for the second time this season. "I think it's going to be a great opportunity for our kids, great experience. At the end of the day, that's what this is about; it's about creating an experience for these kids."

The road only gets tougher as the field narrows with each passing day, consisting mostly of the conference's upper crust. Arguably no team is a tougher draw than Kentucky, whose fans, aptly named the Big Blue Nation, make any away or neutral-site game a home court advantage.

But winning four games in four days is the hand Ole Miss dealt itself. The Rebels only wanted an opportunity, a chance to send seniors Chris Warren and Zach Graham to the NCAA Tournament.

Warren said Thursday's win gives the team momentum heading into Kentucky
Courtesy: Associated Press
Survive. Advance. What's in front of them is simple -- the winningest program in the history of college basketball; a program with 50 NCAA Tournament appearances; a program with seven NCAA championships.

"It's going to be a hostile crowd, but we've played in front of many hostile crowds," Warren said postgame. "This game does give us momentum. I feel like if our team plays to our potential we'll have a good shot at beating Kentucky."

"I wouldn't ask for it to be any different," junior Terrance Henry said. "You know they're going to bring the big crowd. It's going to be a great atmosphere. They're a young team that plays hard. They have some good shooters. Coach (John) Calipari, he's a good coach, and they're a pretty good team."

Warren had his usual 20 points in the win against South Carolina, on 7 of 16 shooting from the floor. He made big shot after big shot, including a layup with just over four minutes left to extend the lead to 16 points before South Carolina made it interesting late with hot shooting from Ramon Galloway.

Warren, like his head coach, was proud of this moment, though he never wears his emotions on his sleeve. This meant something to him, despite classifying the win as simply another game. Because Ole Miss moves on. They survived the first game it played in the tournament -- a career first for Warren -- and advanced.

"I feel like we matchup really well (against Kentucky), as far as our bigs against their bigs and our guards against their guards," he said.

"The first game is always the hardest game, and we got it out of the way," sophomore forward Reginald Buckner, who had 10 points, eight rebounds and three blocks Thursday, said. "We feel confident. We're just going to go out there and play our game."

As Kennedy said, Ole Miss is very, very familiar with Kentucky. The only game between the schools this season provided Ole Miss the defining moment of its season, a Warren go-ahead 3-pointer in the closing seconds enough to seal the 71-69 upset over the then-No. 10 ranked Wildcats.

But that game was a lifetime ago, and Kentucky has yet to lose to the same team twice this season. Kennedy said the Feb. 1 game has no bearing on the outcome of Friday's game, a game sure to feel like Kentucky South. And Ole Miss hasn't beaten Kentucky in 14 tries in tournament play.

"It's really the sadistic nature of coaching, but I'm really looking forward to it," Kennedy said. "For us, we know there's nothing like Big Blue Nation. For my money, nothing can touch Kentucky basketball fans. You get an opportunity to feel that when you're in the SEC Tournament. We're going to see it tomorrow. Certainly a home-court advantage for them. It's going to be an electric atmosphere."

"This is more about us," Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. "Mississippi is going to play well. Did we get better defensively? Have we gotten tougher? That's why we play these games."

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