February 14, 2008

Rebels get a second chance at Auburn

After the Ole Miss men's basketball team lost 76-67 at Alabama Wednesday night, the players and coaches stayed in the locker room much longer than usual.

Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy spoke; players spoke. Emotions ranged. Then, a conclusion was reached - things need to change before time runs out.

"There are peaks and valleys during a season," Kennedy said. "No one wants to admit it, but we're obviously in a valley. Now, we've just got to get out of it."

The Rebels get a shot to get back on the winning track, when Ole Miss hosts Auburn at 4 p.m. Saturday at Tad Smith Coliseum.

With the team reeling a bit, Kennedy said the team's at a crucial point.

"I think we're at a crossroads as a team," Kennedy said. "We can take the easy path, which is 'Oh, poor us. Let's sputter to the finish line.' Or, we can take the hard road and climb up hill and continue to reach for our goals.

"That's the road I hope we choose."

Freshman Zach Graham said the meeting helped clear the air, hopefully leading to the Rebels refocusing their energy.

"It helps to get an understanding of where everyone's coming from and how everyone feels. At the end, I think it'll really help. We're dealing with a lot of adversity right now, and we need to come together and approach the game how we did in the beginning.

"It wasn't a bad thing; it was a good thing."

It starts with Auburn (12-10, 2-7 SEC). The Rebels get a chance to avenge an 80-77 loss that began a stretch where Ole Miss dropped four of five in league play.

In the initial game, Ole Miss (17-6, 3-6) was unable to capitalize on huge size advantage inside, with Dwayne Curtis going just 5-of-7 from the field against a grossly undersized Tiger frontline.

"We have to take advantage of our size. I definitely thought they made us a little timid on driving and getting it into the post with the zone they were running," Curtis said. "They switched it up and threw some different zones at us. They had our guards pushed out a little bit, and we couldn't drive or get it into the post like we should.

"I think the second time around, we'll definitely do a better job."

Ole Miss will have to do a better job containing Auburn off the bounce - a season-long deficiency.

Frank Tolbert (29 points) and DeWayne Reed (21 points) both went for career highs against Ole Miss' defense.

Curtis said the Rebels need to impose their will early on Auburn, forcing the Tigers into Ole Miss' style of play.

"That's exactly what we want to do, make teams play at our speed," he said. "If they're small and we want to go big, that's what we'll do. We'll take advantage of it."

Curtis knows the Rebels are running out of time, and he doesn't want his college career end without a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

"I need to give more, and all the other seniors we have to give more," Curtis said. "We asked for (freshman) to give us their all. Even if they're giving now, we need a little more."

And Graham said it's time to respond.

"For us freshman, this is our first year, but we were seniors in high school last year," Graham said. "We know how it feels for it to be your last year. We want to play for these seniors because it's their last go-round."

Now on the same page, Graham said the Rebels are ready to go forward and play like the team they were earlier this season - starting Saturday against Auburn.

"I don't want to be cocky, but we know we're a more talented team," he said. "We just have to play like it."

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