Ole Miss returned to the capital city for the first time in 18 years and left with a 76-71 victory over a tournament-tested, seasoned Winthrop team. They also left 8-0, and while he felt his team hasn't played its best lately, Andy Kennedy couldn't help but be pleased.
"Winthrop's a quality team," said Kennedy, now 29-13 at Ole Miss. "They return three really good players off a team that won 29 games. Seniors, veterans, good players. But with this win and the win at Central Florida (last Saturday night 76-67) we were able to beat two quality teams without really playing very well."
The Rebels played well late in this one, as they did at Central Florida. UCF made a run late and Ole Miss pulled away in the final minutes. Winthrop played well for basically three-fourths of the game, but the Rebels then pulled away the final 10 minutes.
The Rebels took the lead for good when Eniel Polynice got the ball into Jermey Parnell, and the senior big man slammed it home for a 63-61 UM lead with 7:28 to go. And while the lead never grew to double digits, the Eagles never tied it or led again.
"Our inside guys tonight were tremendous," Kennedy said. "The difference in the game to me was quite obvious – 16 offensive rebounds (to 6 for Winthrop). We beat a team that prides itself with physicality around the basket. They've done a great job of holding their own on the board. We beat them by 11 on the glass (34 total rebounds to 23) which created more opportunities.
"That enabled us to get the win despite Eniel Polynice continuing to struggle, despite our freshmen looking like freshmen at times. Despite our inability to make a free throw at the end (4-10 in the second half after a 4-4 first half), which seems to be more common than I would like. But we still were able to find a way to win, and I hope that shows this team has potential."
Randy Peele, head coach of the Eagles, had trouble finding the words to describe how painful this loss was for him and his team.
"This is a very disappointing loss," he said. "We got beat because of three components. They got 21 second-chance points. They got 18 points off our turnovers. Our first-shot defense was pretty good. That's 39 points out of their 76 points that were not against our first-shot defense. I thought we defended the first shot pretty good. They really rebound, and that's where they beat us."
Peele admitted he used more zone than usual in the game.
"I tried to zone them because they're so athletic," he said. "You have to try to make them stand. Anything you can do to make them stand is to me what you have to try to do. And that's what I tried to do. Their crowd got into the game. We lost our composure, and took some shots that weren't great shots. Just a lack of poise. We couldn't guard them in the second half."
The Rebels had a chance to get some breathing room near the end of the first half. A 3-pointer by Brian Smith gave the Rebs a 33-25 lead with 3:49 to go before the break. But the Eagles outscored Ole Miss 8-2 to trail only 35-33 at intermission.
Winthrop went up 46-39 with 16:15 to go on a Chris Gaynor 3-pointer. That's when David Huertas, struggling much of this season, got the Rebels back in it with back-to-back treys of his own. Ole Miss trailed just 46-45 with 15:36 left, the crowd got into it, and the Rebels had withstood the last big run of the Eagles on this night.
"The back to back 3s from David were huge," Kennedy said, "because we were desperately searching for offense at that point in the game."
"I just thought from that point on, when Huertas hit those two 3s, we just couldn't control things defensively," said Peele, whose team fell to 5-4.
Dwayne Curtis paced Ole Miss with 22 points and 10 rebounds as the Rebels were able to pound it inside, especially down the stretch.
Chris Warren and Trevor Gaskins with 10 each were the only other Rebs in double figures.
Four Eagles scored in double figures led by Antwon Harris with 17 points.
Winthrop shot 51 percent for the game from the floor, and Ole Miss shot 46 percent. Both teams had eight 3-pointers - WU 8-20 and UM 8-25. The Eagles were 13-20 at the free throw line and Ole Miss was 8-14. Both teams had 13 turnovers.
The Rebels' next action is Thursday (Dec. 20) against DePaul in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They also play LaSalle Friday (Dec. 21) and 15th-ranked Clemson Saturday (Dec. 22).
A Win over Winthrop and the Rebs are 8-0
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