Rebels look toward Kentucky

Todd Abernethy knows this is his last time around the Southeastern Conference. He can't wait. After three losing seasons in league play, this time he wants things to be different. And he thinks they can be.

"It's exciting to enter conference play," said the senior guard from Carmel, Ind. "I'm excited with the team we have. We have confidence in our ability. I know we need to pick up the intensity more, but that will happen with conference play. Everywhere we go will be rocking. Hopefully we can bring some excitement to Oxford."

That should begin Saturday. The Rebels, 11-3 on the season, host Kentucky to open SEC play at 7:30 p.m. The Wildcats are also 11-3.

Ole Miss lost its last game before conference play begins, a 59-56 setback at Saint Louis last weekend. The Rebs led by 16 points (32-16) in the first half and by a 34-21 margin at halftime. But the Billikens responded in the second half for a three-point victory.

Kentucky had a scare in its most recent non-conference outing Wednesday night. Perhaps the Wildcats were looking ahead to SEC play.

Kentucky had its worst shooting game of the season but held off Houston 77-70 Wednesday night at Rupp Arena to survive its final tuneup before heading to Oxford.

The Wildcats never trailed and won their seventh game in a row. But they couldn't pull away from the Cougars despite building an early 10-0 lead.

Abernethy said the Rebels have to step up in every area if they want to make a run in SEC play.

"We've got to play extremely hard," said the Rebels' assists leader with 68 on the season as well as scoring 9.3 points per game. "We have to take care of all the little things. Games are won and lost over things like that. And we have to put together two good halves every game."

That's been a problem for the Rebels much of this season. No better example of that than their last game when they played very well in the first half but couldn't finish.

Abernethy said coming from Big Ten country as a kid growing up, he's learned a lot about SEC basketball during his time at Ole Miss. With Florida winning the national title last season and LSU also participating in the Final Four, the league is as good as its been in a while.

"There's a lot of talent," he said. "The SEC is an awesome league. But we also view this as an opportunity to put Ole Miss back on the map. So we're ready for those challenges."

A win over Kentucky would obviously go a long way in putting Ole Miss back on that map.

Another Rebel senior guard, Bam Doyne, said he's in the same situation as Abernethy. There is no tomorrow. It has to happen now.

"This is it for me," said the team's leading scorer at 18.1 points per game. "I'm looking forward to it more than ever. So I'm excited about it and ready to go."

While Kentucky continues to carry the torch as the SEC's top program, certainly with the most tradition, other teams like the ones mentioned above have stepped up and brought balance to the league. This year Alabama has the league's best mark so far at 13-1.

The team with the fewest pre-conference wins is Georgia at 8-4. The team with the most losses is Auburn at 10-5.

But the going gets more serious for everybody this weekend as all but two of the league's teams battle it out against a conference foe to get things moving toward March.

LSU hosts UConn and South Carolina hosts Kansas in non-conference action this weekend. Those two teams begin SEC play next midweek with LSU at Alabama Tuesday night and South Carolina at Georgia Wednesday night.

The Rebels, 8-0 at home this season, will play before their largest Tad Smith crowd of the Andy Kennedy era so far when UK visits. Doyne says he knows the challenge the Wildcats present will be difficult, and the home crowd can help the Rebels out.

"Kentucky plays well together. They always have," said the Little Rock, Ark., native. "We'll have to match that Saturday night. But that's the plan."

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