Both teams are trying to win two more games and advance to play in the NIT's Final Four at Madison Square Garden.
There were just over 4,000 in Oxford to see the Rebels beat UCSB. But it was an enthusiastic crowd. Those who were here obviously wanted to be here and put aside that it wasn't the four-letter tourney but the three-letter one. There'll be even more enthusiasm for the SEC-Big 12 matchup.
When fans do show up for a game like this, you never know when you'll see something like Rodney Jones getting 22 minutes. The 6-foot-3 guard shows up to work every day. He'd only played in seven games all year, 20 total minutes and with only nine points in the books.
That likely wasn't the plan for his sophomore season, but Jones, who scored five points and clearly helped the Rebels in this one, said he just tries to be ready when called upon, whenever that is.
"I really wasn't nervous, but I thought I would be," said Jones, who was likely called into this much action since Eniel Polynice couldn't play because of a recurring knee injury he first suffered against Alabama on March 1. "I got over any nervousness as soon as I got out there. I just went out there and played like it was practice."
Jones said he found out earlier in the day that it didn't appear Polynice was going to be able to play.
"I actually found out today during shoot-around," said Jones, the Alexandria, La., native who played in 16 games last season making appearances in both the Rebels' NIT games last postseason. "Coach said for me to be ready."
Jones said he actually felt bad that Polynice was out.
"I didn't want Eniel not to play," he said. "But I was happy to get out there and help the team."
Jones said it's all pretty simple what he was trying to do against the Gauchos, especially defensively.
"I was just trying to bring energy out there and to lock up whoever I was guarding the best I could," he said.
Kennedy said not having Polynice meant things would definitely be different.
"We didn't know EP was not going to play," he said. "He hurt his knee against Alabama, and while he hasn't missed a game, he's had some tenderness. It really got sore on him over the last 48 hours for whatever reason. Today he said Coach I can't run. I said well, it will be hard to play if you can't run. At that point we were searching for answers. EP usually guards the opponent's best perimeter offensive player. So I was concerned."
Enter Rodney Jones.
"Tonight he had his opportunity, and he really stepped up huge for us," Kennedy said. "He's a winner and nobody likes not playing. He was a part of three state championships in high school, and he's caught up in a numbers game a little bit. I make this point privately all the time. Of all the guys on the team, he's the one that could quite frankly be angry with me about not getting an opportunity, and I openly admit that. Tonight we called on him to extend our season, and I'm so proud he responded."
"I really never get upset with Coach Kennedy," Jones said. "I know he's doing what's best for the team because he wants to win. I really can't argue with the coach. He's doing what's best for the seniors, and I didn't want this to be the last game for the seniors. I know he didn't either."
And now it isn't. Ole Miss-Nebraska is up next on Monday at Tad Smith as the 2007-08 season continues.
Rodney Was Ready
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