Senior Guard Clarence "Clay" Sanders is no longer a starter on the Ole Mis basketball team.
But he proved tonight in the Rebs' 75-69 win over Alabama that is a helluva closer.
After starting the game slowly coming off the bench, a role he was assigned and embraced a couple of weeks ago, Sanders scored the Rebs' last nine points of the game to help Ole Miss pull away in the final three minutes of an otherwise nail-biting, close contest.
"I told him to stay aggressive," said winning Coach Andy Kennedy, who is making winning a habit again in Ole Miss men's hoops. "He started off slowly but Clay is the kind of player who can explode at any time. He can miss five or six shots and then hit several in a row."
Sanders couldn't have picked a better time to "explode."
The Rebs trailed 64-63 with 4:35 to go when Sanders stole what Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried called a "lazy pass" and drove the length of the court for a finger roll layup.
The bucket gave the Rebels their first lead of the second half, but Sanders was just getting started with what appeared to be somewhat of a one-man rally.
After Center Dwayne Curtis
hit the front end of a 1-plus-1 opportunity to give the Rebels a 66-64 margin at 3:15, senior G Todd Abernethy
stole the ball from a Bama dribbler and found a streaking Sanders for another bucket.
Bama cut the score to 68-66 on a drive by cagey G Ronald Steele, but Sanders nailed a three-pointer on the Rebel end for a 71-66 Reb advantage with 1:40 to go.
From there, the Crimson Tide was forced to foul, but they fouled the wrong guy - Sanders, who calmly hit all four free throw chances to close out the game for the Rebs.
"I'm very happy for Clay and all these guys. They believe and they don't quit. We had a couple of rough spots in the first half and in the second half, trailing 54-47 about midway through the second half, but we got a spark from the crowd and found a way to get it done," Kennedy noted. "I thought at the end of the game both teams were starting to get a little tired, but we were able to get over the hump because the crowd engaged and we drew energy off of them. They were a true sixth man tonight. They lifted us when we needed it the most."
The Rebels also played well - for the most part.
Ole Miss only committed five turnovers for the entire 40 minutes and they tied Bama 33-33 on the boards, two huge factors in Kennedy's mind.
"We are working on a very small margin of error against a team like Alabama. We had to find a way to rebound with them, which we did, and we had to find a way to win the turnover game, which we did by putting the ball in Todd's hands," AK continued. "Todd does it every night. Tonight, he played 39 minutes and had 13 points, 6 assists and no turnovers. I will take that line every night."
A month or so ago, the Rebels were starting games slowly and digging themselves a first-half hole. In the last three or four games, that has not been the case. Ole Miss got out of the starting blocks quickly.
"I thought it was important that we come out strong and keep the crowd in the game," said Andy. "We led 19-11 and were looking pretty good, but Alabama had a run that gave them a small halftime lead."
The Rebels offense hit a lull against a 2-3 zone Gottfried installed midway through the first stanza. Alabama outscored the Rebs 27-16 the last 10 minutes of the first half and took a 38-35 margin into intermission.
"At halftime, we didn't change anything we were doing technically against their zone. We were in a little foul trouble and had to put Dwayne on the bench, which allowed Alabama to extend their zone and get in our shooters' faces. We got tentative," he explained. "In the second half we got more aggressive, started finding some openings and capitalizing against their zone."
"I probably stayed with the zone too long in the second half because Ole Miss started figuring it out, finding the creases in it," Gottfried noted.
The Rebs closed the first half deficit to 43-42 on a Bam Doyne
dunk, but then Bama went on an 11-5 run for a 54-47 lead.
After Curtis scored inside, backup PG Brian Smith found an opening and nailed a three-pointer that Kennedy called "huge."
"We got him some space and he nailed it. Brian can shoot. I was hollering for him to shoot the ball and I guess he heard me," smiled the Reb mentor. "That shot ignited the crowd."
From there, it was The Clarence Sanders Show.
Sanders, obviously emotional after the game, called it one of his finest moments.
"I knew we had to do something special and it was my turn this time to help pick up the team. I'm a senior and I have to produce in the clutch. After a poor start tonight, I was able to regroup and get it done," said Clay.
Individually, the Rebs got 17 points from Doyne, 16 from Sanders and 14 and 13 from Curtis and Abernethy, respectively.
Bama, now 18-6 overall and also 5-5 in the SEC West, was paced by inside force Richard Hendrix with 18 points, outside bomber Mykal Riley with 16 and 6-10 post player Jermareo Davidson with 13 points.
Curtis and Jermey Parnell led the Rebels rebounders with 8 each. Davidson had paced Alabama on the boards with 7.
Ole Miss was a solid 25-53 (47.2%) from the floor, including 7-20 from three-point territory, and 18-27 (66.7%) from the charity stripe.
Bama countered with 23-45 (51.1%) shooting from the floor, 5-12 (41.7%) from long range, and 18-26 (69.2%) from the free throw line.
In the end, Kennedy believed the effort in the last 10 minutes of the game by his players and the crowd were the differences in the outcome.
"We won all the effort areas, I thought, in the last 10 minutes and that's what won the game," he noted. "Alabama is a very good team and Mark is an excellent coach, but tonight we sort of outlasted them, thanks to effort by our players and our fans."
Gottfried tipped his hat to the Rebels and Kennedy.
"My kids played hard, real hard, but Andy did a great job of preparing them and the Ole Miss players did an excellent job of finishing in the end," Gottfried closed. "Ole Miss has a good team. They have three senior guards and a junior center who have all been through the wars. Do not underestimate their ability, especially now that they have developed some confidence."
The Rebs' next outing is next Wednesday at 7 p.m. against the LSU Tigers in Tad Smith Coliseum.
"We need the same kind of crowd Wednesday. LSU, like all the teams in the SEC, is tough and we will need all the help we can get," Andy ended.
Before the largest basketball crowd in Tad Smith Coliseum history - 9,452, the Ole Miss Rebels came from behind to down Alabama 75-69 and gain a first place tie with the Tide in the SEC West with a 5-5 league record. The Rebs are now 16-8 overall on the year. Read about it inside.