COMMENTARY: Ole Miss gets an 'A' for Tuesday

With injuries having accumulated like ice in Antarctica, the young Rebels were forced into a pivotal game Tuesday against South Alabama.

And to the credit of the coaches and players, it looks as though Ole Miss has grown up quickly, as improvement mentally can be seen in just a week's time.

Trevor Gaskins suffered a season-ending ACL injury 11 days ago, and head coach Andy Kennedy said the loss put a "fog" around his Rebels.

The adversity affected the team, and although stats weren't released, all signs pointed to a less than stellar showing in Birmingham where Ole Miss scrimmaged UAB a day after Gaskins‘ prognosis was announced.

Then on Tuesday before facing the Jaguars, a larger blow was delivered with Eniel Polynice also scheduled to miss the entire season due to a knee injury.

On a team with no scholarship seniors, Polynice is the elder statesman, the veteran that has been through the most SEC wars.

But after surgery revealed enough damage to end his season, the Rebels lost two experienced guards, off a unit tabbed the best in the SEC by Blue Ribbon, in less than a fortnight. Gaskins' injury hurt, but Polynice's could have been a dagger. The junior is Ole Miss' best defender and a player that isn't scared to take the big shot.

It is the kind of loss that could cause some teams to pack it in for good. But instead of repeating the fog from a week earlier, Ole Miss took the challenge and bonded as a team.

South Alabama, a favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference, won 26 games last season and received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but the Rebels didn't seem very impressed.

Instead, Ole Miss pushed out to a double-digit lead early and proceeded to blowout the Jaguars, 89-71.

Filling in for Polynice, Zach Graham poured in 16 points, while David Huertas and Chris Warren totaled 27 and 15 respectively. The Rebels set a school record by hitting all 22 free throws and forced USA into 15 turnovers.

There will be more difficult obstacles, but Ole Miss gets an ‘A' for Tuesday. The Rebels regrouped quickly and learned an important lesson: This is SEC basketball, and players must step up regardless of what is going on around them.

Folding against South Alabama wouldn't have ended all hope, however, losing such a game would be something to point to as a mistake when the season closes.

Kennedy has assembled an athletic, talented roster that expects to win basketball games. And he will make sure the inexperienced players learn from mistakes and hiccups. And yes, there will be some hiccups.

But that is no reason to bail out on this group. Ole Miss will keep the same goals as the preseason, and the Rebels are currently 2-0 with both victories coming by double digits.

The injuries dwindle depth and force adjustments to be made, but it also provides fans the opportunity to see newcomers develop and improve through this early going.

Kennedy described his team as "pretty somber" versus South Alabama, but that could be used as optimism. Chemistry and attitude are where they need to be. The Rebels are hurting because their own have suffered setbacks, but the ones on the floor can also focus on the task at hand.

"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."

It was a good game indeed. Not only did the Rebels rout an opponent, but they also showed some resolve.

The fog is gone, and so should any thoughts that Ole Miss won't find a way to persevere.

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