"We just kept grinding it out," said the senior guard after the Rebels finally pulled away from the Flames in Oxford Tuesday night. "We just kept on playing."
It wasn't necessarily what you might call an impressive overall performance for Ole Miss. But early on it was apparent UIC came to play and wanted to win both games in this series after taking an 87-75 overtime win in Chicago last season.
Neither team was on early, but the Flames made enough shots to take a 27-26 lead into the locker room at halftime. UIC was solid on defense and pushed the Rebels out further offensively than they wanted to play. For one of the few games so far this season, the Rebels struggled at times to shoot the basketball before the shot clock expired. Although that never happened, the Rebels were never in sync on offense in first half.
"I thought they did a really good job of guarding our ball screen action," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. "I thought we weren't working hard enough away from the ball. Then we were getting into shot-clock situations where we were having to force some bad looks against a set defense. We just weren't doing our job off the ball."
It was more of the same as the second half progressed. Not until Clarence Sanders nailed a 3-pointer withn 3:26 to go in the game did the Rebels get any cushion at all, and that was a precarious 67-61 lead.
UIC then missed on two 3-point chances on its next trip downcourt. Jermey Parnell pulled down a rebound and the Rebels headed the other direction. That's when Parnell came through again, this time on the Rebels' offensive board.
The junior forward's rebound and putback off a Dwayne Curtis miss with 2:19 left gave the Rebels a 69-61 lead. Although not over at that point, this one appeared to be headed the Rebels' way.
"In half one, we were flat as a pancake," said senior guard Bam Doyne, again the Rebels' leading scorer with 20 points. "In half two, we got ourselves together and came out with more energy. We told ourselves we weren't going to lose this game. We kept on playing, and that was the difference."
"This game was actually good for our team," Kennedy said. "It wasn't necessarily good for the ole ball coach. We knew coming in that they had legitimate post players and guards who can score. The kid off the bench, T.J. Gray, is playing really well. He kept them in the game when they were looking for some offense. We knew they would be a challenge."
Gray, a guard, led the Flames with 17 points while forward Othyus Jeffers had 14.
Veteran UIC head coach Jimmy Collins said his team, now 6-6 on the year, gave good effort but couldn't finish.
"I thought we did a good job of competing with them the first half," he said. "But then when Sanders and Doyne started hitting those 3s, and with the big fella inside, Curtis, we just had no answer for him hitting the boards. Our big guys couldn't push him enough to keep him away from the rim. I thought it was a good effort on (Ole Miss') part in the second half in terms of executing and going against our weaknesses. Those three guys in particular hurt us."
After Doyne's 20, Sanders had 18, Curtis 13, and Parnell 11 for the Rebels. The Rebs won the battle of the boards 40 to 32.
Abernethy said the 10-2 Rebels are feeling a bit fatigued after a tough preseason and a season that is now moving deep into December.
"I think we're a little worn out after 12 games," Abernethy said. "Things weren't going our way, and I was really proud of the way we persevered. Things finally started falling for us."
Kennedy said the fact that the Rebels finally made baskets made all the difference in this one, played before an announced crowd of 3,317.
"Funny how that works. Make some shots and things change," he said. "We also rebounded better in the second half and our effort was much better in the second half. Shoot 33 percent in the first half and 66 percent in the second half. That speaks to the final 13-point advantage."
Ole Miss hosts Alabama A&M Friday at 7 p.m. Admission once again is free to all.
Ole Miss gets past UIC 77-64
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