The smile was likely one of relief as much as anything following his team's 74-71 win over outmanned LSU. The Rebels led by 22 in the second half. LSU closed the gap to two late.
"We were actually pretty good in the second half when we were up 20," Kennedy said after his team improved to 14-1 overall and evened its Southeastern Conference record to 1-1. "Give LSU a lot of credit. That group has been through a lot of adversity, but they continue to fight."
Indeed the Tigers could have folded but didn't. The 15th-ranked Rebels led 60-38 midway through the second half on a reverse layup by Dwayne Curtis. With the Tigers coming in 7-8 overall, 0-1 in the SEC, and with their most recent loss an embarrassing 61-39 setback at home to Mississippi State, the Rebels could relax with such a large lead. Or it appeared they decided they could. And they admitted it postgame.
"We kinda relaxed a little bit, actually a lot. We relaxed a lot," said Curtis, with 11 points and three rebounds. "We got that lead and LSU executed well. They knocked shots down and got back in it."
Eniel Polynice said basically the same thing. In a nutshell, this one appeared to be clearly in hand but obviously wasn't.
"We just didn't play with energy and intensity in the second half," said Polynice, who along with Chris Warren led the Rebels with 15 points. "I think we let up when we got the big lead."
When they got that big lead, the Rebels became unlike the Rebels, and the Tigers unlike the Tigers. LSU went through a period of time when it was unconscious from long range, especially Marcus Thornton and Garrett Temple who each had four treys in the contest. When Thornton nailed a 3-pointer with 24 seconds left, LSU was only down 73-68 after being down 12 points (73-61) with 57 seconds left.
After Thornton pulled his team to within five points at that point, the Rebels immediately turned the basketball over. Thornton hit another 3-pointer with 17 seconds left to make it 73-71. LSU fouled Warren with 13 seconds to go, and the Rebel freshman guard made one and missed one for a 74-71 lead.
The Rebels defenders were tough to the end. Thornton's hot hand lost control of the ball as he was heavily guarded and went up for one last effort to tie the game. His 3-pointer missed the mark, was rebounded by Curtis, who was fouled but missed two free throws. With .9 left on the game clock, LSU inbounded the ball and Temple heaved it goalward but untrue.
"In the first half we couldn't make shots," said LSU Coach John Brady. "In the second half we got better in making open shots. We guarded Ole Miss pretty well in the second half. We just didn't do enough things to win the game."
But the Tigers almost did. It was disturbing to Kennedy.
"Our guys just began to play passively," he said. "We just made some really foolish mistakes. When we did make mistakes, they made us pay. At Thompson-Boling Arena Wednesday night, we were in a similar situation down 12 and we didn't allow anything to get in our way. We attacked Tennessee like LSU attacked us tonight. I was hopeful by this point in the season we were past that, but obviously we are not."
One shot that proved big in the end was one that ended the first half. David Huertas took the inbounds pass from Polynice, got it just beyond halfcourt, and launched it. Swish. The Rebels had a 43-29 lead at halftime.
With Jermey Parnell out for the game with an ankle injury, freshman Malcolm White got 21 minutes of action scoring 12 points on 4-5 shooting along with six rebounds and 4-4 at the free throw line.
"He was the MVP of the game," said Kennedy.
"Coach AK told me to be ready and to come in and bring a lot of energy," White said. "That's what I did. I stayed focused and played hard and crashed the boards."
At one point, White successfully shot a 16-footer that brought the crowd to its feet and gave the Rebels 66-56 lead with 4:35 to go, a lift his team needed at the time.
"I work on that shot every day," said the 6-foot-9 White. "I knew I could make it."
Said Curtis of White's play, "He really brought a lot of energy out there for us along with some big plays and some points and rebounds. He did it all for us today."
The final score wasn't the only thing close in this one. Ole Miss and LSU both shot 45.9 percent from the floor, and both were identical at 28-of-61 shooting.
Ole Miss was 6-20 from 3-point range. LSU was 8-23.
From the line Ole Miss was 12-18 and LSU 7-15.
Ole Miss had 11 assists and nine turnovers. LSU had 11 assists and eight turnovers.
LSU comeback falls short as Rebels win
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