Commentary: Rebels avoid collapse in Coliseum

JACKSON - It may have been advertised as a home away from home game, but Ole Miss was playing in strange territory. And they were rattled.

Even after completing their worst half of the season, the Rebels came out of the lockeroom clinging to a two-point advantage. That would deteriorate quickly.

Winthrop tied the game ten seconds into the half and built a three-possession cushion before the first media timeout. Referees were getting quick with whistles. Kenny Williams was getting irritated, and the young, promising guards were only 3-15 from behind the arc in the first 20 minutes.

Needless to say, it was a prime opportunity for Ole Miss to collapse on the Mississippi Coliseum floor. But that is the thing about this team. It finds a way. A way to battle back. A way to make a run. A way to get to 8-0.

David Huertas has personified struggling this season and even early on Thursday. The sophomore was heralded by Andy Kennedy since arriving in Oxford, but nerves or anxiousness has gotten the better of the Florida transfer all year. Except against the Eagles when maybe the pressure has been the highest. That is the thing about this team.

Huertas cut the Winthrop lead to four and then to just one on back-to-back bombs from outside. He lifted his arms to ignite the crowd, and at the 11:55 mark, Ole Miss would take back the lead. Two possessions later, the Rebels would not trail again, finally winning 76-71.

The "home team" gave the spirited 4,400 in attendance a solid second half and something to feel good about during the week off before Ole Miss gets greater challenges in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

"We've beaten two quality opponents (UCF and Winthrop) without playing well," Kennedy said. "I continue to preach to our guys about looking at the big picture, and we need to understand that we must play better in order to get wins as the season progresses. Our attention to detail is not where it needs to be."

Kennedy continually preaches that the Rebels have yet to scratch the surface on their capability. If so, we are in the midst of something special. Ole Miss' young guys have the scary mixture of confidence and ignorance. The group doesn't know losing, and they don't have a reason to be intimidated by anybody.

Oh yeah, the Rebels also have the older guys to lean on during a tough stretch. Thursday, that was Dwayne Curtis. The senior poured in 22 points and 10 boards when Ole Miss desperately needed consistency. Brian Smith played valuable minutes and allowed Chris Warren to take a breather, so he could be fresh down the stretch.

In all, it was a successful night even with the sloppy segments. It was a neutral-court test before three more loom ahead including a date with No. 15 Clemson next Sunday.

The Rebels should know more about themselves after the upcoming trip but a little information was uncovered in Jackson. Ole Miss can overcome adversity and regroup in the middle of a slugfest with a quality opponent. It may not have been pretty, but it was another step on the way to maturing and growing into the Rebels' potential.

Maybe Ole Miss hasn't scratched the surface. Maybe the best is yet to come. We will find out soon, but for now, the Rebels can enjoy the start.

The perfect start that is.

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