Morgantown Showdown

Through a six-game winning streak, No. 15 Ole Miss has developed somewhat of a reputation for late-game heroics.

Against Southern Mississippi earlier this month, the Rebels overcame a six-point deficit with 1:12 left in regulation for a thrilling 81-79 win at home. Then came another comeback bid a week later vs. McNeese State, a game Ole Miss eventually won by 16. Four days later, it took overtime to eventually top a worth UTEP squad 91-81.

But as Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy will admit, the Rebels can ill-afford to fall behind by a substantial margin to No. 6 West Virginia Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

Though the Mountaineers survived a scare in an 80-78 win at Cleveland State in their previous action, they're a perfect 8-0 and have proven formidable in the season's still-early stages.

"Very seldom do you have great opportunities in your life," Kennedy said. "This is a great opportunity for us. It's going to be a tremendous challenge, but I want them to look at it as a great opportunity. We've worked for three months now to put ourselves in a position for this game to have the significance that we hope it holds."

It's been almost 11 years since Ole Miss claimed a road win over a top-10 opponent. The Rebels topped Kentucky by a 73-64 decision in Rupp Arena on February 14, 1998.

However, for a Rebel bunch that boasts its best mark (10-1) through 11 games since 2007-08, a road trip to Morgantown isn't a game to prove they belong.

Just ask junior guard Eniel Polynice

"We just got to come out and play every game the same way," he said. "We can't look at (the matchup with West Virginia) any different than any other game. We've just got to come out with the right approach, and hopefully come out with a win."

For just the second time in school history, Ole Miss will face two top-10 non-conference opponents in the same season. In November, Ole Miss met Villanova in Puerto Rico, though the outcome read a 79-67 defeat.

Since then, the Rebels are riding a six-game win streak and have their highest ranking since 2008.

"The ranking helps us out a little bit, but we really haven't proved anything yet until we go into somebody else's house and get a win," said Polynice. "By us going in Wednesday and hopefully getting a win, I think we'll be alright. But we can't look too far ahead."

Key in Ole Miss' run toward the national spotlight has been the play of the team defensively.

That's right, I said defense.

No doubt, the Rebels deserve high praise for their offensive efforts this season. I mean, they do rank first in the SEC and sixth in the country with an average of 85.4 points per game. But hey, we expected a team with such prolific scorers to pour in the points in bunches.

Somewhat lost in it all, however, is the fact that the Rebels rank second in the SEC and 20th in the nation with a +4.6 turnover margin. They're also fifth in the conference with 8.5 steals per game.

"Defense has been helping us a lot," Polynice said. "It's just attention to details and staying together. We're not breaking down mentally. We're listening to our coaches. When you play good defense, you don't have a choice but to win. That's what we've been doing."

Polynice said the team's stingy defensive efforts are a mindset the team has developed throughout the season.

"It's just about taking some pride and taking some leadership," he said. "We know defense wins games. If you play good defense and hold good teams, how can you be beaten? By us playing good team defense, the outcome's coming. We're getting good wins and beating good teams. Hopefully that can carry over into West Virginia on Wednesday."

Ole Miss is currently 3-1 in true road tests this season. But in fairness, Wednesday's showdown could very well be the barometer of where this team stands 12 games in.

In all aspects, from RPI to an added dose of national exposure, this one carries some important weight.

"They got to lace their shoes and put their clothes on like we've got to lace our shoes and put our clothes on," Polynice said of WVU. "The best team that plays the hardest, plays together and brings the most effort is going to win the game."

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