Rebels feed off fans and their head coach

The mentality of this Ole Miss men's basketball team has changed. You can see it in their faces. You can hear it in their voices.

It's all basically come from Andy Kennedy. We hear that, too, when the first-year Rebel head coach speaks.

"Our guys don't quit," Kennedy said after Ole Miss beat Alabama 75-69 in Oxford Saturday to move to 16-8 on the season and 5-5 in Southeastern Conference play. "I see a different look in them now than I did earlier."

So Kennedy sees it as well.

"They've experienced some success now, and they believe," he added.

What they believe now is that they can win basketball games, but equally as important is the fact that they believe they can finish basketball games. "Finishing" hasn't always happened this year or in the fairly recent past as losing seasons mounted.

"It's all about being leaders," senior Todd Abernethy, who finished with 13 points and six assists, said. "It's about Bam (Doyne) and Clarence (Sanders) and me, the three seniors, leading the way. We know we have to do that. If we don't step up, who will? We'd pretty much had enough (losing the past few seasons), and we have taken the burden upon ourselves. We've taken it all to heart."

And even in games like Saturday's win over Alabama, the Rebels, down 54-47 halfway through the second half, could have folded but didn't.

"We just didn't give up," Abernethy said, echoing the words of his head coach. "We've been in that situation a lot this year, where we're down in the second half and have to battle. It's really a gut-check. It shows your character. We might have laid down in the past, but we haven't lately. All year we've kept playing and tried to learn how to finish. They (Alabama) made some big buckets but we responded."

The Rebs responded in a lot of ways.

"We did a better job in the second half of putting pressure on them and getting solid traps," Abernethy said. "That really helped us out. We got some big steals and made some layups that helped us a lot."

It was Alabama's eighth loss in its last 10 trips to Oxford for a men's basketball game. The fans in the stands helped the Rebels, according to the players and their head coach.

"Our fans were awesome," Abernethy said of the largest crowd in Ole Miss hoops history at 9,452. "It was an electric environment. They helped us out so much."

The Rebels are now in contention to win an SEC Western Division title for the first time in six years. Abernethy said the players are beginning to feel that it's within reach.

"We're not content with where we are," Abernethy said. "We want to win the (SEC) West. We believe we can do that."

The Rebels were in jeopardy of losing a key game at home in this one, down 38-35 at halftime and also down seven points midway through half No. 2. But Sanders said Kennedy told them team that they needed to step up in the second half.

"He told us we're a second-half team anyway," said Sanders, with 16 points and two steals in the contest, as well as one huge defensive play late in the game when Alabama was trying to get the ball inbounds and he tipped it away and caused a Crimson Tide turnover. "We took that to heart and went out and played like it."

Perhaps as impressive as any statistics were the ones in the turnovers column. Alabama didn't have many – just 11 in the game. But Ole Miss had only five turnovers for the entire contest.

Junior center Dwayne Curtis said now the focus is on LSU and the upcoming game Wednesday night in Oxford.

"We'll enjoy this win, but then we'll start thinking about LSU," said Curtis, who had 14 points, eight rebounds, and three steals in the game. "We have to put this one behind us because we've already lost to LSU once (62-55 in Baton Rouge). We know they will come in here ready to win."

Sanders said the largest crowd ever in Oxford for basketball was indeed a big boost for the team.

"I love the crowd," he said. "The more we win, the more exciting it will be. It's an advantage having the home crowd behind you. We're feeding off that."

Kennedy said the support in the stands was indeed a factor.

"Our crowd was outstanding," he said. "They were a true sixth man. When we got tired, our crowd energized us."

His team also feeds off what he tells them, and what their entire coaching staff teaches them.

"We're not going to quit," Kennedy said. "These guys won't quit. It's been about taking baby steps this year from day one. It's my job to get them mentally and physically in position to play well and to win, and then it's their job to carry that out."

Lately, with three straight wins in SEC play over Mississippi State, Auburn, and now Alabama, that plan has worked to perfection to put the Rebs in the thick of the SEC West race with six games left.

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