The young Ole Miss team went on a 14-4 run down the stretch to notch an impressive 85-82 victory over the Tigers to remain undefeated and win the championship game of the San Juan Shootout.
Freshman point guard Chris Warren was named tournament MVP as he scored 14 of his 19 points in the second half. Warren said the experience of playing a few close games early in the season meant the Rebels knew they could pull off their biggest victory of the season.
"It gave us confidence. It wasn't our first time being in a close game, so we knew what to do," Warren said. "We knew we had to execute, and it all came down to executing."
The Rebels erased a six-point Clemson lead late with back-to-back 3-pointers from guards Warren and David Huertas. With the game tied at 80 and less than two minutes to play, senior forward Dwayne Curtis was fouled under the basket. Curtis made both free throws to give Ole Miss an 82-80 advantage.
After the Tigers missed a 3-point attempt, Curtis pulled down an offensive rebound on a Huertas miss and got the ball back to Warren who was fouled and made both free throws to all but clinch the game with 25 second remaining.
Warren only shot 5-17 from the floor, but found a way to make the plays when they were needed, just as the Rebels have done on their 11-game win streak to open the season.
"We've got a freshman point guard that is growing up right before our eyes," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. "I would dare to say there are not many tournaments in the country where the MVP goes 5-17 in the finale, but you forget about the 12 he missed because of the huge shots that he makes, and he has continued to do that for us all year."
Curtis also added 19 points for Ole Miss. Huertas and Eniel Polynice each had 14 points.
After lackluster performances in the first two wins in the tournament, the Rebels opened this game on a 6-0 run and shot 55 percent from the field in the first half to lead 48-40 at halftime.
"In the first two games I was concerned our focus wasn't entirely on basketball, but today I knew it would be because Clemson is nationally ranked," Kennedy said. "It was a great opportunity for our guys and I'm glad we met the challenge."
The Tigers stormed back in the second half behind a coaching change from head coach Oliver Purnell. Clemson switched from man to man defense to a 1-3-1, which Kennedy said made the Rebels play tentatively.
Ole Miss shot only 27 percent from the field in the second half compared to Clemson's 61 percent. Kennedy said the switch to the 1-3-1 did have its advantages for Ole Miss.
"With that 1-3-1 it makes you more susceptible to giving up offensive rebounds, Kennedy said. "We were missing a lot of shots, but we were getting a lot of second chance points because of our ability to offensive rebound."
Ole Miss had 23 offensive rebounds compared to 12 for the Tigers.
Clemson was able to score from the perimeter and inside. Guards KC Rivers and Terrence Oglesby combined to go 8-12 from behind the arc and scored 19 and 20 points respectively. Forward Raymond Sykes was a perfect 8-8 from the floor and scored 17 points.
Kennedy said the win over Clemson was one that showed the Rebels deserve to be mentioned along with the nation's other undefeated teams.
"Clemson is a very good basketball team, and this is a win we'll be able to hang our hats on come deep into the year as we continue to improve," said Kennedy, who is now 32-13 in two years at UM. "They're going to beat a lot of people, and they made incredibly hard shots and are very athletic on their front line. We just responded down the stretch by stepping up and making huge plays, and that is what you have to do to defeat an undefeated 15th-ranked team."
As the Rebels knocked off one top 20 team, they have put themselves in position to move into the top 25. Warren gave a simple answer to whether or not Ole Miss will be in the top 25 this week as calmly as he knocked down jump shots at the end of the game.
"That's the plan."
Ole Miss hosts Southern Mississippi in Southaven Friday, Dec. 28, at 7 p.m. at the Desoto Civic Center.
San Juan champs - Rebs 11-0 after 85-82 win
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