Ole Miss Is For Real

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) _ The debate over the best team in the balanced and competitive Southeastern Conference has mostly revolved around Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida this season. Alabama and Georgia have drawn some attention. It may be time to start mentioning Mississippi. Aaron Harper scored 23 points as No. 25 Ole Miss beat No. 10 Tennessee 87-71 on Saturday for its fourth straight victory. The Rebels (19-4, 7-3 Southeastern Conference) are the SEC's biggest surprise. Ole Miss, after winning just five conference games last season, is in first place in the Western Division. The Rebels' goals at the start of the season were 20 wins and an NCAA tournament bid. They missed the NCAAs for the first time in four years last season. Now that those marks seem like locks, the Rebels are setting their sights higher. ``What we're trying to do is win the whole thing _ the SEC title,'' said guard Jason Flanigan, who had five points and six assists. ``Then we want to go to the Final Four.'' Ole Miss has never won a regular-season SEC crown. The Rebels did win consecutive SEC West titles in 1996-97 and 1997-98, but didn't look like a threat to do so again when they were picked last in the division to start the season by the league's media and almost every national magazine. ``We're trying to do the impossible,'' said Jason Harrison, who had nine points and eight assists. Ole Miss is just one game behind Kentucky (8-2 SEC) for the best record in the conference. Harper set a career high for scoring and was 5-for-9 from 3-point range. Lately, the freshman sharp-shooter has been the Rebels' best scorer, averaging 14.4 in the previous three games. ``My biggest challenge in the game is staying mentally focused,'' he said. ``I've been doing a better job of it lately.'' Meanwhile, Tennessee (18-6), with one of the most talented rosters in the SEC, has been arguably the league's most disappointing team. The Vols have lost five straight on the road, four of five overall and are just 5-5 in conference play. They'll likely fall out of the top 10 for the first time this season. ``Sometimes I question our hunger,'' said Vincent Yarbrough, who led the Vols with 16 points. ``Sometimes I think we may have read our newspaper clippings a little too much.'' Playing without starting point guard Tony Harris, who sprained an ankle early in the Vols' Wednesday loss to Arkansas, didn't help as Tennessee committed 20 turnovers. ``We missed Tony today more than we did against Arkansas,'' Vols coach Jerry Green said. Isiah Victor had 15 points and was 6-for-6 shooting. Ron Slay had 15 points and keyed a second-half rally that saw the Vols cut an 18-point deficit to eight with about 13 minutes left. Rahim Lockhart scored 14 points for Mississippi, including a short hook and follow dunk that gave the Rebels a 69-56 lead with 7:32 left. Mississippi scored the game's first seven points and led the rest of the way. Green said his team was not one of the 10 best in the country during the week, and no one could argue with him, especially after the Volunteers' lackluster first-half performance. The defense, which Green had cited as the team's most glaring shortcoming, was lethargic and the offense sloppy. Ole Miss, which scored 50 points in beating LSU on Wednesday, led 46-28 at the half, hitting over 55 percent of its shots. The Rebels turned 10 Vols turnovers into 16 points. Harper scored 16 in the first half, including four 3-pointers. The Vols upped the tempo and defensive intensity in the second half, but Ole Miss kept Tennessee at bay by hitting just enough shots and continuing to cause turnovers. Ole Miss snapped a three-game losing streak to the Volunteers.