Dwayne Curtis said his sore foot feels better, but he’s pleased the Rebels don’t play again until Monday so it might get even better still.
Todd Abernethy admitted, without any prompting, that there was indeed some fatigue involved in this one.
Ole Miss won its 21st game of the 2006-07 season Wednesday night, a 73-59 win at home in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament over Appalachian State. The Rebels play at Clemson Monday night in round two.
Those 21 wins so far are more than every Ole Miss men’s basketball team in history but three.
In 1937-38 the Rebels finished 22-12. It was 60 years before the Rebels won that many again.
The 1997-98 Rebels went 22-7 and would have won more if not for Bryce Drew.
The 2000-01 Rebs went 27-8 and ended the season in the Sweet Sixteen as Arizona won 66-56.
“Winning this game (in the NIT at home) is big for this team,” Kennedy said. “This team now has the distinction as the fourth-winningest team in the history of this program. That’s almost hard to believe. But it’s the truth.”
This year’s Rebels can’t become the winningest team. Only four more games are possible – two before New York City and two when they get there. Winning them all would still leave them a couple of wins short of the 27 wins of the team six seasons ago.
Even if they don’t win another one, this year’s edition is in elite company when it comes to Ole Miss men’s basketball. The players and their head coach know they’ve accomplished a lot. But still they want more.
It hasn’t been an easy road to get to this point.
“To our guys’ credit, I’ve had my foot firmly planted on that accelerator now for about three months,” Kennedy said after his team moved to 21-12 on the year. “There are times when fatigue sets in. I think we saw some of that early in this one.
Kennedy said Curtis, with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting along with 2-of-2 at the free throw line and with eight rebounds, was the best he’s been in at least a couple of games.
“DC has not played as efficiently since his injury (on Feb. 21 vs. Georgia),” Kennedy said. “He’s been gimpy. He’s looked very tentative. We just challenged him to go score. We’re saying we’re trying to get you the ball, and we feel you can be very effective for us. He came through for us down the stretch. The time off has helped him.”
Kennedy said there were two players who stood out from the start in this one.
“Kenny Williams and Todd Abernethy brought really good energy to the game. So we challenged them,” he said. “There are nights when certain guys are not as good as others. That’s what makes a team. We always talk about staying together and finishing the journey together.”
Abernethy had 18 points to lead his team, along with three steals and a blocked shot.
Williams had 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field and 1-of-2 at the free throw line. He had 11 rebounds, a block, and three steals.
“Kenny had a lot of energy tonight, got to a lot of balls, and finished some big plays around the basket,” Kennedy said. “He played a really quality game for us.”
“I felt like I had to step up,” the 6-foot-8 junior said. “We couldn’t end this season tonight at home, not with all we have accomplished. I just came out and gave all the energy I could.”
Kennedy said his team was also able to do some things defensively down the stretch that helped.
“We zoned ‘em,” he said. “Went back to that 2-3 a little bit and tried to collapse in. I thought the zone bothered them. It’s very seldom we play a team where we have guards actually bigger than their guards. Tonight we were, and once we were able to keep (high-scoring guard D.J.) Thompson in front of us, our size bothered him on the perimeter and his ability to step into the shot. I also thought we did a great job on Nathan Cranford. We held him scoreless and this is a kid that made ten 3-pointers in a game. He was a major concern for us. We put Todd on him because we knew he’d be conscientious and not leave him. He did a good job defensively as well.”
Kennedy said the Mountaineers, which ended their season 25-8, were a quality opponent with a good resume’.
“Appalachian State has beaten some good people,” he said. “They compete. They play within themselves. Their guard (Thompson) is very disruptive. They were right on the cusp of playing in that four-letter tournament (NCAA). We saw why tonight.”
Kennedy said his team and its seniors have more than left a legacy, even though there’s still more games to play.
“I’m proud of what this team has been able to accomplish,” he said. “I’m proud of the fact that they’re 16-1 in this building, which is more wins at home than any team here ever. So these seniors have left their mark, and that’s great for them. It’s something they’ll remember forever.”
They have five days before the next game, but they’ll have to continue to push themselves as they have all season.
“It’s been a long year,” Kennedy said. “We’re all running on fumes. Every game is a grind. It takes a toll when it gets into the 30s. We’ve now played 33 games and we keep going.”
But not at home. At least not the next game.
“It was a fitting end (at home) for these seniors to get to play one more time here,” Kennedy said of Todd Abernethy, Clarence Sanders, and Bam Doyne. “I’m really appreciative of the fans who came out on such short notice, especially with our students gone. Now we go on the road, and we haven’t had much success there. That lack of success kept us out of the four-letter tournament. We go to ACC country now, and it will be a tremendous challenge. It’s a challenge we’re eagerly anticipating.”
Gracious in defeat and pleased for his players that they had such a positive season, ASU head coach Houston Fancher said he hated that it had to come to an end.
“We had a great ride this year,” he said. “I am so proud of my team. We won 25 games. We set school records for conference, non-conference, and regular season victories. Our kids have done a lot of wonderful things. It was one of the most successful seasons in Appalachian history.”
“I congratulate Ole Miss and Andy Kennedy,” Fancher continued. “Andy has done a tremendous job. They were physical but we responded and battled toe to toe until late. They just finished the game stronger than we did.”