SOUTHAVEN, Miss. (AP)—The comeback is becoming a way of life for No. 20 Mississippi.
Chris Warren scored a career-high 32 points—11 in overtime—and the Rebels rallied for the third straight game, beating Texas-El Paso 91-81 on Wednesday night.
“One thing that I can say with all assurance is our team never panics,” Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said. “I told our team we play excellent basketball for periods of time and then we go from excellent to horrible, then back to excellent. I’d like to get in that in the average to good (range). I’d like to stay out of horrible.”
Mississippi went from 10 points up to 12 points down, then to its fifth straight win.
The Rebels (9-1) trailed Southern Mississippi by six points with a minute left 10 days ago before Warren hit two late 3s for the win. Then they trailed McNeese State by as many as 15 points last Saturday before rallying for another win.
With that recent history, the Rebels should have expected a close game with UTEP (5-2), and they got it.
Zach Graham opened the overtime with a 3-pointer for Ole Miss and Warren made 9 of 10 free throws as the Rebels outscored the Miners 19-9 in the extra 5 minutes.
Terrico White hit two 3-pointers and had three key rebounds in the final minutes of regulation. Warren’s two free throws put the Rebels up 71-70, and White made one of two from the line with 19.5 seconds. Arnett Moultrie hit a short jumper with 10 seconds left to send it to overtime.
“Our guys were a little down and we had to say `Hey, we’re fortunate to continue playing. Let’s take advantage of it,”’ Kennedy said. “I was very proud that we came right out and hit a big 3 and followed that up with another stop and score and from then on we were in control.”
It looked as if the Rebels were in control early, too. But nothing is assured with Ole Miss recently.
Warren scored 17 points in the first 15 minutes of the game, helping the Rebels to a 41-33 halftime lead by going 5 of 6 on 3-point attempts. But the Miners held him scoreless for the next 24 minutes and built a 12-point lead with 5:31 to play.
UTEP shifted defenses at halftime. Instead of letting Warren run free after a pass, the Miners denied him the ball the rest of the way.
His inability to score in the second half handcuffed the Rebels just as the Miners were getting hot. They hit six of their first seven shots in the second half and held Ole Miss without a field goal for stretches of 6:30 and 3:55.
Corresponding runs of 12-0 and 11-0 gave them a 70-58 lead with 5:31 remaining.
With Derrick Caracter controlling the inside and the Rebels’ three-man frontcourt rotation on the bench with 11 combined fouls, it looked like the Miners might be able to hold the lead.
Kennedy chose to go with a smaller lineup, though, and increased the tempo and pressure. White hit 3s from each wing to cut the lead to 70-65, then Warren scored four points on two straight possessions that were set up when Eniel Polynice forced a turnover each time.
After that, Warren’s strategy for UTEP’s defense became simple.
“I just stopped giving the ball up,” Warren said.
The game, played on a neutral court in a Memphis, Tenn. suburb, was a homecoming for eight players, including White, Moultrie and UTEP’s leading scorer, Randy Culpepper, who finished with 19 points.
Culpepper couldn’t help but feel the Miners were headed back to El Paso empty handed.
“Ole Miss made big plays possession after possession,” he said. “And we just kept coming up short.”