That Ole Miss rolled in this one might come as a bit of a surprise based on the fact that the Rebels only learned this afternoon that junior starter and team leader Eniel Polynice is out for the season (ACL surgery).
Couple that with the loss of sophomore guard Trevor Gaskins (ACL surgery scheduled for this Friday) a couple of weeks ago and you have a team that might have trouble finding its way currently. That wasn't the case either.
It appeared the players were more focused and energized than in the opener, and perhaps that was due to them lifting their games without their teammates, especially Polynice.
Although Andy Kennedy said he wasn't totally happy with the way the Rebels started this one, it appeared to be an improvement over the way things went early in the season opener, a 65-52 win over Arkansas State.
But he hopes they will answer the bell every time, and not just in response to a situation like the one today.
"We talk all the time that God only gives you so many games to play," said Kennedy, his third Ole Miss team now 2-0 on the season. "So I would hope we'd be excited to play regardless of Eniel's situation. I honestly thought we were still pretty somber. I just thought we executed a little bit better, moved the ball, made some shots."
The Rebels led by double digits for the first time at 27-17 with nine minutes to go in the first half. At halftime the lead was 19 at 46-27.
After moving out to a 25-point advantage at 63-38 on a Murphy Holloway dunk and again at 66-41 on a David Huertas 3-pointer, the Jags whittled it down to 15 points on several occasions, the last time with two minutes to go at 86-71.
Huertas, tying a school record with seven 3-pointers in a game, made one last trey with a minute and a half to go for the final margin.
The junior guard finished with 27 points to lead the team after pacing the Rebs with 24 in the opener.
"I'm feeling great out there, great," said a smiling Huertas, who has started this season as he'd hoped to start last season but didn't. "I don't feel the pressure this year. I know I am going to play, so I just go out there and play hard. I feel calm because of all I went through last year and the experiences of that."
Ole Miss was 22-of-22 from the free throw line, a school record for accuracy in that department when attempting more than 20.
The Rebels shot 42 percent for the game (28-of-67) and were 11-of-26 from 3-point range (42 percent).
The Rebels needed some players to step up early this season anyway. Now with the loss of Gaskins and Polynice, that's the case even more.
Like Zach Graham, the sophomore guard who had a career-high 16 points against USA on 3-of-4 shooting (2-of-3 from 3-point range) and 8-of-8 from the free throw line.
"Eniel was a big part of our team, and Trevor was a big part of our team," Graham said. "We just have to step up and fill that void. It was on my mind all day, just trying to stay focused and stay on top of things. I felt good out there. We shared the ball. It was a good game for us."
Terrico White is another, and the freshman guard had six points and five assists in 18 minutes. Kennedy said it's imperative he and Graham step up from now on.
"We don't have any other options," he said. "We are what we are. There's no doubt those kids have the physical capabilities of being good on both sides of the ball. We've just got to keep working with them and being patient and putting them in positions to be successful."
Following Huertas and Graham in the scoring department was point guard Chris Warren with 15.
South Alabama (1-1 on the season) was paced by Brandon Davis' 19 points.
The Rebels now head to Florida for a tournament at Daytona Beach. The Glenn Wilkes Classic has Ole Miss and Utah playing at 5:30 p.m. (CST) on Friday.
Rebs roll against Jags
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