Closing the door

There's something special about the Ole Miss Rebel basketball team when the end is near. Time and time again, the 12-0 Rebels have pushed on the accelerator to seal victories this year.

It was pounded in our heads from the time we could understand the English language.

"Finish your broccoli and you can go outside and play. . . . "

"Finish your homework and you can watch TV. . . "

"Whoever gets to the finish line first wins. . . "

"Don't be a quitter, finish what you start. . . "

"It's not how you start, it's how you finish. . . "

And so forth and so on.

Obviously, members of the Ole Miss men's basketball team understand the concept of finishing.

Several times this year they have broken open close games, such as last night's 20-point victory over Southern Miss' scrappy Golden Eagles, or overcome deficits, such as in the finals against Clemson of the San Juan Shootout, to capture victory.

Their finishes, not their starts, are why they are undefeated and nationally ranked.

After last night's game in the DeSoto Center, Kennedy had the audacity to say what I've been thinking and mumbling about since the season started.

"We haven't played nearly our best basketball yet. I know it in my heart," said the thus-far unscathed mentor.

But when the game is on the line, at the end, these Rebels have another gear.

They tighten up their game like Tiger Woods tightens up his swing coming down the stretch of a major. Very few mistakes, crisp contact, applying the pressure constantly and seizing the moment.

It's a quality all coaches would love their teams to have. In fact, if you could buy that intangible, most would give half their paychecks for it.

Case in point. Sophomore Guard Eniel Polynice was playing "loose" most of the night. Almost careless at times. Then, with the game on the line, he looked like a completely different player.

The penetration got more decisive and the feeds inside got more accurate, leading to easy buckets.

Tiger calls it a "killer" instinct.

Whatever you want to tag it, being able to elevate your game when the outcome is on the line is an ingredient that cannot be measured in value.

A lot of coaches want to talk about the first five minutes of each half being the pivotal times in games. Many times, that's true. That's when the tone is set, for sure.

But all that really matters is the end, within reason.

College basketball has a lot of parity. There are good players everywhere. USM has several.

But the ones who produce when it counts the most are the ones who are cherished and Ole Miss seems to have several.

PG Chris Warren has proven he doesn't mind stepping up in the clutch and certainly isn't "afraid" to take a critical shot. Ditto his backup, senior Brian Smith, who canned two important treys last night.

Dwayne Curtis is no stranger to clutch buckets. Kenny Williams has cleaned many a board with crucial, game-changing rebounds. Polynice loves the glare of the closing minutes. Frosh G Trevor Gaskins has made a couple of key shots late in games to bury the dagger deeper.

And on and on.

Kennedy is analytical about his team's ability to finish strongly.

"First, we have depth, so we are fresh at the end where our opponents may be a little weary," he assessed. "Second, these kids seem to have a will to win. They want to win badly and we keep reminding them constantly that the only object to the game is to win.

"Third, success breeds success and confidence. They've produced in the clutch game after game and now they have confidence when the game is on the line they can get it done."

I buy every word of that - who am I not to? - but I think there's something else boiling beneath the surface too.

There's something in the eyes of the ones that keep their cool.

In football, I always watch the eyes of quarterbacks. If they look like they just saw "The Exorcist" for the first time, they will usually struggle. If they look like they just got up from a nap, you know you have something special.

Our players have calm eyes. They exhibit no panic or tension or tightness. In fact, it's just the opposite. They seem to settle down as the game progresses.

They seem to gain focus and intensity and precision. They appear to become more assignment-sound. They seem comfortable in the moment.

Some of that can be coached. Some of it is innate.

Eli Manning had it. So did the hoops teams of the late 1990's and early 2000's with guys like Mike White and Keith Carter and Ansu Sesay and Jason Harrison. Stew Patridge. Armintie Price. Stephen Head. And many more in our recent history.

When the moment got bigger, their games got better.

Yes, the hoops season is young. Yes, the competition will get harder. Yes, they have to start playing better the first 30-35 minutes of each game against the "better" clubs they will face - you can't rely on the finish all the time.

But if this Rebel team continues this trend of finishing games the way they have to this point, many more wins are in the offing.

I'd much rather have a team that starts slowly and finishes hard than breaks out of the gate only to fizzle at the end.

Obviously, these kids listened when Mom said "finish your peas."

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