A healthier lineup had Mississippi’s SEC title hopes looking brighter this season, but another slow start to league play is dimming them.
To even their conference record, the 22nd-ranked Rebels will need to beat visiting South Carolina for the first time in four seasons Wednesday night, and slowing down a red-hot Devan Downey would help.
Ole Miss limped to a 16-15 record in 2008-09 after losing four players to injury. Starters Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice were limited to a combined 12 games.
With Warren and Polynice back, the Rebels got off to a 12-2 start this season, but they have since dropped two of three to open conference play, including Saturday’s 71-69 overtime defeat at then-No. 9 Tennessee.
Warren scored a team-leading 19 points but had two turnovers in the extra period and Ole Miss committed 21, which led to 20 points for the Volunteers. Warren was 5 of 18 from the field as the Rebels shot a season-worst 34.4 percent.
“Not only do we turn it over, but we turn it over in situations that led directly to points for them,” coach Andy Kennedy said. “I thought that was the turning point.”
Ole Miss (13-4, 1-2) dropped four of five to start SEC play in 2008-09, including an 82-71 loss at South Carolina, and finished 7-9 for the second straight season.
The Rebels started 2-1 the previous season but lost eight of 10. They opened 1-4 in 2006-07, Kennedy’s first season, and finished 8-8 - just missing their first winning SEC record since 2001-02.
Kennedy has never beaten the Gamecocks (11-6, 2-1), going a combined 0-4 with Mississippi and Cincinnati.
One of those defeats was Ole Miss’ first in nine all-time meetings in Oxford, 80-77 on Feb. 2, 2008, as Downey led South Carolina with 25 points. The senior guard scored 22 in last season’s home victory over the Rebels.
Downey, who spent his freshman season at Cincinnati under Kennedy, enters this matchup as the SEC’s leading scorer at 20.9 points per game. He’s averaged 32.3 over the past three games, but his season-high 35 points weren’t enough Saturday as South Carolina fell to visiting Vanderbilt 89-79.
The Gamecocks trailed by double digits for most of the second half, having a three-game winning streak snapped as they let the Commodores shoot 61.1 percent.
“We’ve been talking for weeks now about how important it is for everyone to play well,” coach Darrin Horn said. “Tonight that wasn’t the case. It starts on the defensive end. You won’t beat anyone when they shoot 61 percent against you. There were things we did well … but it wasn’t enough.”
The Gamecocks lost their only matchup this season with a Top 25 team, falling 72-61 at then-No. 18 Clemson on Dec. 6. That defeat is part of their 1-3 record in true road games.
The Rebels had been 8-0 at home before losing their most recent game in Oxford, 80-76 to Mississippi State on Jan. 9 in their SEC opener. That’s their only loss in 14 games against unranked opponents.
South Carolina leads the series 13-12 and has won three straight over the Rebels since a 68-63 road defeat Jan. 11, 2006.
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