Basketball teams get a break; baseball upcoming

The hoops teams are enjoying Christmas break amidst winning streaks while baseball season is just around the corner.

The Ole Miss men's and women's basketball teams are enjoying their Christmas breaks feeling pretty good about themselves.

The Rebels defeated Tennessee-Martin 92-64 in Tupelo Tuesday night, their fifth win in a row, to move to 7-4 on the season.

The Lady Rebels, winners of three straight games, beat Clemson 67-54 to stand at 7-3.

But their holiday breaks will be short-lived. Both squads meet back in Oxford Christmas night, not only to get ready for their next opponents but to get set for the long, winding, grueling road to March.

As the coaches sent their players home to be with families and friends, they could actually enjoy the break themselves while looking ahead to their next challenges.

In the first game of the doubleheader at BancorpSouth Center, the Lady Rebs only led Clemson 25-24 at the break, but UM head coach Carol Ross said she still felt pretty good about her team's chances of victory.

"I thought we were playing their type game, but we were still winning," Ross said. "We had some foul trouble and we had kinda gotten bogged down in a halfcourt game. So I felt if we played Ole Miss Lady Rebel basketball, then I thought we had a good shot to win.

"That meant we had to have a variety of ways to score," she continued. "Play a little half court, let our defense start our offense, get on the offensive boards, get to the foul line. If we did those type things, then I knew we'd be in good shape. I loved how they came out of the gate and set a tone in the second half."

The Lady Rebels went on a 20-2 run to open the second half and maybe also set a tone for after Christmas activity with their inspired play. It was about this time last season when Ole Miss began to play better and to come together as a team which ended up in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight seasons.

Sophomore guard Armintie Price of Myrtle High, playing basically in front of her home area fans and supporters, only scored two points in the first half against the Lady Tigers. But in the second half she got in a groove and added 18 more points to go along with four assists and 12 rebounds.

"I think I started out frustrated with my play in front of this wonderful crowd we had," said Price - nearly 3,600 attended the doubleheader. "In the second half I just came out and played ball. I just concentrated on putting the ball in the basket."

One key to the Lady Rebs' success against Clemson was the play of junior guard Ashley Johnson, who came out firing early and ended the game with 16 points, seven rebounds and an assist. Ross says Johnson needs to continue to step up for the Lady Rebs as 2004 turns into '05.

"I met with Ashley earlier in the week," Ross said. "We'd moved some people around in the two spot and given several people opportunities. I knew it was Ashley's turn to step up. I figured she'd been aggravated enough and frustrated enough that when she got her shot that she'd run with it. How she played (against Clemson) really didn't surprise me very much. She had a great week of practice and had prepared herself very well for this moment. She's a good player. She got on the boards. She penetrated. She hit 3s. She played well all-around defensively. She really anchored the team and did a great job out there."

Johnson said she understands her role and that she knew the team needed for more players to step up for them to be successful. So she did.

"The talk I had (with Coach Ross) helped me a lot," said the Shelbyville, Tenn., native. "It helped me to realize how much better I could be as a player and how much I could help my team out if I played really, really hard. Practice was good and I prepared myself very well for this game. I'd been frustrated with the way I'd been playing."

Ross says Johnson's play is one piece of the puzzle for the type momentum the Lady Rebs are looking for heading into the Southeastern Conference season, which is right around the corner.

"We have all our players now, and the team chemistry seems to be coming around. We're having some of our questions answered now," Ross said. "We can take this game and really move forward with it. So much of a team's success or not depends on their swagger, their confidence, their refusing to lose. I really believe in those things. This team can now relax a little and be at home and enjoy Christmas and know they are now playing Ole Miss basketball the way it should be played. When we gather back up on Christmas night, we hope the momentum continues."

The Lady Rebels play Tuesday night in San Diego against Marquette in the first round of a holiday tournament out there. The second round is two nights later, and the Lady Rebs will play either host San Diego or Vermont.

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On the men's side, it's been a terrific five-game run for the Rebels as they've won all five contests by double digit-margins. After two close losses, the Rebels got rolling in Memphis with a 65-53 win over the Tigers and haven't looked back.

They'll take their 7-4 mark to Richmond for a game against Virginia Commonwealth on Dec. 29. A home game with Southeastern Louisiana on Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. in Oxford will wrap up the pre-conference slate for UM head coach Rod Barnes' squad.

"We're excited about our opportunities coming up after Christmas," Barnes said. "The guys will come back on Christmas night and we'll start getting ready for VCU. It's been a long haul since (the win at) Memphis (on Dec. 11)."

It's also been an amazing thing to watch where this team has come from since the opening three games in Milwaukee in the BCA Classic Nov. 14-16. The improved play of senior center Tommie Eddie, who led the Rebels against UT-Martin with 20 points, has been a transition of major proportions. In the three games in Milwaukee, Eddie scored 12 points - total.

Rod tweaked the starting lineup a bit prior to the Memphis game. Senior point guard Cavadas Nunnery got the nod over sophomore Todd Abernethy, and "Bonk" as Nunnery is called by teammates and friends, took advantage of his opportunity that day. Rod wanted Bonk to get the Rebels started against the Tigers with his defensive play. He did that and it has carried over throughout the five-game run.

Abernethy has played a lot of minutes each game, and his contributions in the scoring column have been a boost to the Rebels as well as his abililty to see the court and get the ball inside to Eddie and others.

Junior forward Londrick Nolen, who didn't have his best night in Tupelo, has still been one of the major factors in the Rebels' recent run. Seniors Kendrick Fox and Justin Johnson have stepped up, especially in the scoring department, along with freshman Brandon Patterson whose outside shooting will help the Rebels in the long and winding road of SEC basketball ahead.

Rod wants to see sophomore guard Bam Doyne, who had 10 points in Tupelo, step up and contribute more. Hopefully his performance against UT-Martin is a sign that's about to happen. Rod's basically still waiting for the light bulb to come on for freshman center Jeremy Parnell, who needs to become a contributor in the post for the Rebels as the season continues.

The Rebels have been shooting lights out. It's been a long time since an Ole Miss team shot 53-plus percent for five straight games and had at least one half in each of those contests where they've shot 60-plus percent. But that's been the case since Dec. 11 in Memphis.

Chemistry and togetherness of this team has also emerged, maybe moreso than any Rebel team since the 2000-01 team that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. That they had 29 assists against the Skyhawks proves their unselfish play.

But it all comes back to defense with Rod Barnes, and he says for the Rebels to continue to have success this season, that's where it will all have to begin.

"We have to win with our defense," he said. "We're shooting the ball well, but what will help us win, especially in the conference, is defense."

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The first baseball poll for the 2005 season is out. Ole Miss has landed at No. 16 in Collegiate Baseball's preseason poll.

UM head coach Mike Bianco's squad will begin preparations for the season as soon as spring semester classes start on Jan. 20. The season opener is Feb. 15 against Arkansas State in Oxford.

That weekend - Feb. 18-20 - the Rebels play in the Rice Invitational in Houston, Texas, facing Lamar, Rice, and Southwest Missouri State.

Ole Miss junior first baseman/left-handed pitcher Stephen Head has been named to the first team National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association preseason All-America team and has been selected as one of 58 players to the 2005 Wallace Award Watch List.

A two-time All-America selection for the Rebels, Head hit .346 with 13 home runs and 53 runs batted in 60 games last season. On the mound, he posted a 6-3 mark, with five saves, and had a 2.82 ERA in 17 appearances, including eight starts. Head also struck out 56 while walking 19 in 70 1/3 innings of work.

The Brooks Wallace Award is presented annually to the national college baseball player of the year. The watch list will be trimmed to 12 semi-finalists on May 24, 2005 and the selection committee will narrow the field to three finalists following the NCAA Super Regionals at a press conference in Omaha, Neb., on Thursday, June 16, 2005.

The award, dedicated to the memory of the former Texas Tech shortstop and assistant coach, was won last season by Cal State Fullerton's Kurt Suzuki.

"Obviously, we're very excited for Stephen," Bianco said. "Stephen has had a tremendous career here and is definitely one of the top players in college baseball. We're expecting Stephen to have another exceptional year."

Head is the third two-time All-American in school history, joining Jake Gibbs (1960 and 1961) and Paul Husband (1972 and 1973), and last season became Ole Miss' first-ever finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, presented to the nation's top amateur player. Last season, Head also was named the SEC's co-Player of the Year.

Ole Miss went 39-21 last season and was selected for the first time to host an NCAA Regional. It was the third time in four seasons under Bianco the Rebels had been to the NCAA Tournament.

The 2003 and 2004 seasons were the first time Ole Miss had ever been in the NCAA Tournament in baseball in back to back seasons. All-time the Rebs have been to the NCAA tourney on 10 occasions.

Baseball season tickets are now on sale.

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