Gutting It Out

This one had tough game written all over it, the Rebels' 91-81 overtime win against UTEP at the Desoto Civic Center in Southaven.

The Miners have talent. Their recent addition, Derrick Caracter, a transfer after two seasons at Louisville, makes them better. Or will.

They've lost the two games he's played in – New Mexico State and Ole Miss.

He's a 6-9, 275, big body that can play. Yeah, he fouled out – after 15 rebounds and 15 points.

Five Memphis area players came home with something to prove. Led by Randy Culpepper's 15 and Arnett Moultire's 10, the Bluff City players for UTEP almost got the job done.

Almost. When they were going through that 26-5 run, from trailing 53-44 to leading 70-58, they looked like an SEC contender. It's why a couple of national analysts – Fran Fraschilla and Andy Katz – picked UTEP to win Conference USA. All of it. Not just the Miners' division.

So thinking this was another non-conference December walk in the park for the Rebels shouldn't have been anybody's evaluation. And for those keeping up with hoops this season, it likely wasn't.

So if UTEP can play, and it can, so can Ole Miss. I heard, from a few, and read, again from a few, everything from the Rebels didn't deserve to win it to they didn't want to win it. That they don't deserve to be ranked, at least not yet.

But, folks, this is the way special seasons are made. Stay healthy (knock loudly, please, and pray for no repeat of last season), and win your close ones. You know that. You follow college sports.

Again, stay healthy and win close games.

So far, with fingers crossed, that's what the 9-1 and 20th-ranked Rebels have done.

The talent is out there for the Rebels. Concerns by some of the inside play remain, but maybe not as much so as a week or two ago.

Reggie Buckner is getting better and becoming more confident. He's a huge key to next semester. Heck he was last night. I don't know if the Rebels win without him.

In 23 minutes, 5-of-6 from the floor, 11 points, six boards, three blocks? An impressive as advertised freshman that's getting better. Aren't you enjoying watching his progress? He's come a long way in a short time. And, yes, there will still be nights when his stat line is woeful. He's a freshman.

DeAundre Cranston, DeAngelo Riley, Murphy Holloway, all combined for four points and six rebounds. That won't get it. Unless Buckner does what he did. He stepped up.

What about Zach Graham and his continued contributions? Maybe as big a bucket as was made all night was his 3-pointer to jump-start OT for the Rebs.

Trevor Gaskins is my pick as one of the keys to the conference season. When he finds that groove, and he will, this team gets even better. Add Terrance Henry to that short list.

Chris Warren has already found it. There have been few more exciting point guards in Ole Miss hoops history than the little guy from Orlando. Last night 32 points, 5-of-10 treys, and a huge 13-of-15 at the line.

Andy Kennedy said the one thing he's learned about this team is that it never panics. Yes, a handful of times Warren will shoot it too quickly or make a mistake that's costly that he'd like to have back. But your lack of panic starts with the junior point guard.

And also from cool as a cucumber future pro Terrico White. His two big 3-pointers late in regulation and his 19 total points were huge. So were his 37 total minutes, the most by any Rebel in this one except Warren with 42 minutes.

And don't forget about Eniel Polynice. He only scored seven but he had eight rebounds to lead the team in that department and with two steals and two assists. EP? Huge key every game for this team.

As for this "team" of collective Rebels, it really is OK to start to like them if you haven't already. Though only 2100 was announced, as Kennedy said, "The ones who were here were into it."

And helped lift their team. Imagine what just twice as many could have done.

Ole Miss hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament in eight seasons. As I was watched the game unfold in the second half, I thought, UTEP's won a national championship, so maybe fans will understand the basketball tradition there, the effort that's put into making UTEP a national basketball power, that a lot of folks believe the Miners will be at the top of C-USA when it's all said and done.

I thought about this, too. These are two schools that have recent movies made about something important from their sports past. I was just about past the point of thinking the Rebels could pull yet another one out, down 12 with five minutes to go.

But then the team that voters have decided belongs among the Top 25 out of 300-plus got its act together, as it's done lately, and pulled it off.

Will falling behind like that come back to bite them at some point, unlike the past few games when they've been able to rally late and win?

Probably. But with this team who knows?

Because good teams that have the potential to become even better win the close ones. And yes, there is a long, long way to go until March.

But special seasons aren't made without wins like Wednesday night in Southaven.


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