Mississippi has alternated losses and wins in its first four SEC games, but may have gained some valuable confidence from its most recent victory and could get more Saturday.
To move above .500 in conference play for the first time in more than two years, the 22nd-ranked Rebels will need to earn their first road win over LSU in seven seasons.
One of Mississippi’s problems in SEC play has been holding on to leads. The Rebels blew a 12-point advantage in their most recent loss, 71-69 in overtime at then-No. 9 Tennessee last Saturday. That came a week after they wasted a five-point halftime lead in a home loss to Mississippi State.
Ole Miss (14-4, 2-2) led by as much as 16 on Wednesday night against visiting South Carolina and held off the Gamecocks’ second-half charge in a 66-57 victory.
Mississippi’s advantage shrank to six with 5:41 remaining, but Chris Warren helped his team respond with an 11-3 run, contributing four of his team-leading 17 points.
“I’m happy. It’s a nine-point win in the SEC,” coach Andy Kennedy said. “It stops the bleeding. … (Holding on to the lead was) a combination of experience (and) proper decisions with the ball. We defended better, and I’m proud of the way we guarded.”
It’s not the Rebels’ defense that has been the problem in recent matchups with LSU. It’s an offense that’s averaged 55.3 points in three consecutive defeats to the Tigers and 54.5 in six straight losses at Baton Rouge dating to Jan. 18, 2003.
If the Rebels end that drought, they’ll be above .500 in conference play for the first time since a 2-1 start in 2007-08.
Mississippi, which hasn’t finished with a winning conference record since 2001-02, will face a Tigers team that’s struggling to defend its SEC regular-season title.
LSU (9-9, 0-4) hasn’t been the same since the graduation of five seniors, including conference player of the year Marcus Thornton.
With Thornton’s help, the Tigers finished 27-8 overall and 13-3 in the SEC to earn their first NCAA tournament berth since 2006. They’ll need a strong rally to make it back this season as they’ve lost seven of eight and four in a row.
Even Tasmin Mitchell’s season-high 38 points weren’t enough for LSU on Wednesday night against visiting Auburn, which scored 12 of the game’s final 16 points in an 84-80 win.
Coach Trent Johnson said he was giving his players a day off to regroup before Saturday’s game, when the Tigers will try to avoid their second 0-5 conference start in three seasons.
“The team is really down,” he said. “This is probably the most down I’ve seen them.”
It’s hard to blame Mitchell. The senior forward is third in the SEC with 18.1 points per game and second with 9.4 rebounds per contest.
He averaged 18.5 points against the Rebels last season and scored 20 in a 73-66 home win Feb. 14. Ole Miss’ Terrico White averaged a team-leading 17.5 points versus the Tigers in 2008-09.
Warren and White form one of the SEC’s top scoring tandems, averaging 16.6 and 15.9 points, respectively.
LSU leads the series 116-80 and holds a 76-25 advantage in Baton Rouge, but the teams have split the last 28 matchups.