OXFORD, Miss. -- Everyone picked Mississippi to finish last in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division.
Not so fast.Clarence Sanders scored 11 of Mississippi's final 12 points to cap a rousing comeback Saturday in a 75-69 victory over Alabama (No. 19 ESPN/USA Today; No. 18 AP).Sanders also made two key steals down the stretch to go with his 16 points, and the Rebels gained a share of first place in the SEC's wild, wild West with their fourth win in five games after a 1-4 start in conference play."That's why kids come and play in the best basketball conference in the country," Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said after a game in which he incited the school-record crowd of 9,452 to rise to its feet.With the win -- their first against a ranked opponent since 2003 -- the Rebels (16-8, 5-5) clinched their first winning season in five years. They're also tied with the Crimson Tide (18-6, 5-5) atop the SEC West. Mississippi State and Arkansas are a game behind, and no one is out of the chase.Ole Miss -- a team in transition under a first-year coach who had little time to assemble a recruiting class -- has six games remaining, including three at home."We're not going to lose in this building," Kennedy said. "We made a vow and we're not going to break it."It was the fourth straight game decided in the final minutes for Alabama, which had its three-game winning streak snapped.Bam Doyne led Ole Miss with 17 points, while Dwayne Curtis added 14 and Todd Abernethy had 13 points and six assists.Richard Hendrix led Alabama with 18 points and eight rebounds. Mykal Riley scored 16 points and Jermareo Davidson added 13.That trio of Alabama players dominated the game in the minutes before and after halftime, helping the Crimson Tide wipe out an early eight-point deficit after a strong start by Ole Miss. Alabama used a 2-3 zone to hold the Rebels to one field goal over the final 8:03 and took a 38-35 halftime lead as Mississippi's entire frontcourt -- Curtis, Sanders and Kenny Watson -- sat or played gingerly with foul trouble.Alabama pushed its lead to as much as 49-42 with about 15 minutes left in the game. But Abernethy's 3-pointer started an 11-5 run that tied the score at 54 with 9 minutes remaining.The run featured two layups by Curtis. The rest of the Rebels followed Curtis' example and abandoned their trademark 3-point attack for driving layups and short jumpers. Ole Miss outscored one of the SEC's most accomplished frontcourts 30-26 in the paint, scored 15 points off 11 Tide turnovers and held a 25-19 advantage by bench players.As Alabama appeared to tire, Sanders gave Ole Miss its first lead of the second half with a steal and fast-break layup to make it 65-64 with 4:33 left.Sanders said at that point the Rebels could tell they were more hungry for the win than the Crimson Tide. He wasn't about to allow four fouls to slow him down as he attacked on defense."I knew in the last five minutes I had to step my game up," said Sanders, who has hit 12 of 18 3-pointers in his last three games. "I had not done that offensively or defensively, I think."The Rebels also turned up the defensive pressure with a press, forcing a shot-clock violation that led to a free throw by Curtis. On Alabama's next possession, Abernethy forced a steal and passed ahead to Sanders for another layup to make it 68-64 with 3:25 left."Turnovers hurt us," Alabama coach Mike Gottfried said. "We made lazy passes late in the game and that's something you can't do if you want to win."After Ronald Steele's layup, Sanders extended Ole Miss' lead to 71-66 with a wide-open 3 from the left wing, then nabbed a game-clinching steal with 30 seconds left. He capped the win with four free throws."Our kids, I felt they fought and they believed," Kennedy said. "We're really starting to believe we can win and we're finding ways to do it."