The Rebels might have been hard-pressed to have made such a comment before Wednesday night's 83-69 win against Tennessee in Oxford. Afterwards, it was OK to confess such a thought.
"Oh yeah," the senior guard from Carmel, Ind., said after the Rebels moved to 13-7 on the season and 2-4 in the Southeastern Conference. "We were 1-4 in the conference. We were playing at home. We had to win."
And so they did. But it wasn't easy.
Midway through the first half, Ole Miss was up 21-13 on the Volunteers and in possession of the basketball before things went awry. Way awry. The Rebels began turning the ball over, missing shots, and making mistakes, while Tennessee did just the opposite. The Vols outscored the Rebels 25-7 the remainder of the first half to take a 38-28 lead into the locker room.
It was there that Abernethy said the Rebels regrouped and got themselves back together.
"We kind of lost focus in the first half," he said. "We talked at halftime about this being a must win. They made some big runs with some 3-pointers in the first half. We had to dig deep and we knew the first five minutes of the second half would be huge. We made some shots and got some stops."
That they did. The Rebels opened the second half with a 7-0 run which they extended to a 13-2 run over the first five minutes of the second half. At that point UM led 41-40, and it was a whole new ballgame.
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy evaluated it briefly and accurately.
"They made us pay in the first half, and we made them pay in the second half," he said.
The score certainly proved that. The Rebels outscored the Vols 55-31 in the final 20 minutes.
"We were careless in our some of our decision-making in the first half and much better in the second half," Kennedy said. "And we got better productivity off our wings, which we must have to be successful. Clarence Sanders and Bam Doyne have to step up and make shots for us to have a chance."
In the first half, Sanders had two points and Doyne three.
Also in the first half Tennessee was 7-of-14 from 3-point range. In the second half that dropped off to 3-for-13.
The Rebels, meanwhile, were 0-for-6 from 3-point range in the first half and an improved 6-of-13 in the second half.
"Thank goodness in the second half, some of them went in," Kennedy said.
Kenny Williams had nine points in the first half with some big shots and some putbacks which helped the Rebs stay in it. But he had no more points in the contest. Dwayne Curtis had five points in the first half and 13 in the second for 18 in the game.
A Sanders 3-pointer pulled Ole Miss to within three points at 38-35 to conclude the opening 7-0 run in the second half. An Eniel Polynice putback gave the Rebs the lead at 41-40 off a Sanders miss to finish off the 13-2 run.
The Rebels played the way Kennedy wanted them to and the way he wants them to in the future during much of the second half. There was pressure, so much so that Tennessee was forced into two intentional fouls during the second half to stop an easy Rebel drive and shot each time.
A Sanders jumper off a steal by Doyne gave UM a 59-51 lead with just under eight minutes left. A layup by Doyne, who ended the game with 13 points, gave Ole Miss a 64-53 lead with 6:42 left. The Vols never got it under nine points after that. Sanders finished with 20 points to lead the Rebels in scoring.
"I just relaxed and quit rushing my shots," said Sanders, who during one stretch in the second half made four straight baskets for his team. "I was too anxious at first, then I calmed down. We knew if we just kept playing we could win."
The Rebels won the pressure battle as far as turnovers were concerned committing just 14 to the Vols' 19. The Rebs had only four turnovers in the entire second half.
The Rebels won the battle of the boards 40-34.
UT was playing without its top scorer, guard Chris Lofton, who also leads the SEC in scoring at 21.5 points per game.
Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl, whose team fell to 14-6 and 2-3, said games like this one have become all too familiar for his Vols.
"We've got a formula going in these road games," said Pearl, whose team lost its fourth in a row away from home. "Part of it is depth. Part of it is youth. Ole Miss has experience. They were playing at home. That's what we were up against, and we did some good things. But not enough good things."
A crowd of 8,052 mostly Rebel fans watched this one. Ole Miss plays at Vanderbilt Saturday at 12 noon in a game televised by LF.
Rebs strong in second half to beat UT
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