LaSalle used effort and hit tough shots to go on a 31-16 run in the second half to take a 60-58 lead with 10 minutes to play. Ole Miss (10-0) head coach Andy Kennedy said the Explorers got back into the game on pure effort.
"The one thing you can control is your effort, and I thought LaSalle (4-5) played harder than we did," Kennedy said. "We just happened to make a couple more plays. That is the first time in 10 games that I can say that, and to me that is most disappointing."
After sophomore guard David Huertas missed the front end of a one and one, LaSalle used two free throws to pull within three points with 16 seconds to play. Huertas was fouled again on the ensuing inbounds play, and sealed the game by hitting both foul line attempts.
"After I missed the first one I said ‘wow' after they scored and we got the ball back. I told myself I had to make these or we would lose, so I just breathed hard, relaxed, and I made both of them," Huertas said, who made his first start in five games.
Guards Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice picked up the slack as the Rebels got down in the second half. The backcourt duo combined for 26 points after intermission. A Polynice 3-pointer gave Ole Miss a 63-60 lead, and Warren hit a 3-pointer of his own to put the Rebels in front 78-71 with two minutes remaining.
Polynice used his second half flurry to lead Ole Miss with 20 points. Warren finished with 19. Forward Dwayne Curtis and Huertas each had 14 points.
The Rebels out rebounded LaSalle 45-43, but the smaller Explorer team made all 42 count while shooting 50 percent from the floor in the second half.
"We weren't playing right, we weren't playing well at all, not even hard," Curtis said. "They were getting every loose ball, and doing things like that."
The senior forward finished with five rebounds, and expressed the same sentiments as his coach.
"We didn't bring our focus or energy. Everything we did, we pretty much got out-hustled."
Ole Miss tried to counter the smaller LaSalle team with a four-guard lineup midway through the second half, but was met with even more problems.
"We tried to go small because of the defense they were playing on us, and we didn't do anything on the defensive glass," Kennedy said.
"We went back big and they did a good job of changing defenses, played us a triangle and two and guarded the guys who were making shots. It forced guys that weren't accustomed to making plays. Thank goodness EP (Eniel Polynice) stepped up in the second half and made a couple shots."
Since Polynice's outburst of 28 points against South Alabama in the second game of the season, the sophomore has averaged only seven points a game in the previous six games. Friday night was his third game with more than 15 points.
Motivation and hustle should not be an issue for Ole Miss in the final round of the San Juan Shootout, as the Rebels will play No. 15 ranked Clemson. The same Clemson team knocked Ole Miss out of the second round of the National Invitational Tournament 89-68 last season.
"They play hard, they get into passing lanes, and they run the court to get a lot of points in transition," Curtis said about the Tigers. "They are athletic. We're are going to have to get out on the boards and play out there. It is the ACC."
Clemson (10-0) will be the first ranked opponent for Ole Miss on the season, something Curtis said will provide extra motivation.
"We have had a target all year, and them having that ranked number is going to make us play harder and be ready."
A Perfect 10
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