'Heart and Soul'

Overcome with emotion, Nick Williams fell to the court. Tears streamed down his face. Confetti rained down on him from the roof of Bridgestone Arena.

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His team, Ole Miss, champions.

This was a moment he'd long dreamt of, a moment that, year after year, always escaped him. So, when the moment finally arrived, an SEC tournament championship and automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, there was no holding back.

"When I fell to the ground after time had run out," he said, "I was just thinking to myself it finally came. I wasn't surprised that we won, but I was just happy for the guys. I tried to get up as fast as I could to go celebrate with them. I was just overjoyed. It was a lot of fun."

He cried and cried, then cried some more. He hugged teammate after teammate.

The player head coach Andy Kennedy called the "heart and soul" of the 26-8 Rebels had invested so much in his three years at Ole Miss, and finally all the hard work, and even the disappointment from those oh-so-close years, was proving worth it.

So he took it all in.

"He was very emotional after the game because he had vested so much in it; it was so important to him," Kennedy said. "Those are things I like to see. I like to see the fact that this is important to them. They understand the magnitude of it, they understand that now they can exhale and enjoy the moment."

Nick Williams
Bruce Newman

Williams badly wanted to give close friends and former teammates Chris Warren and Terrance Henry an NCAA tournament berth, to have them alongside as the confetti fell. Alas, they never reached the ultimate destination, the mecca of college basketball.

However, Williams now had, and the gravity of the moment blew through him. Henry and Warren were among the many to contact Williams after the 66-63 win over Florida, to lend words of encouragement.

In a way, they shared in the celebration. Finally, Ole Miss is back in the NCAA tournament. The Rebels, a No. 12 seed in the West Regional of the bracket, were last there in 2002. They'll play No. 5 seed Wisconsin at 11:40 a.m. CST on Friday.

"It's just been tough, man, being so close," he said. "It broke my heart not being able to send Chris out with a tournament appearance. Terrance is one of my best friends. It hurt me not to send him out with a tournament appearance. But at least I get to go, so I'm all right."

As he sat down at a table in front of gathered media on Tuesday, he finally took off his championship hat, distributed to players and coaches upon the conclusion of the game on Sunday.

"Probably the first time I've took it off since Sunday," he said.

His numbers don't stand out. He's fifth on the team in points at 8.1 per game and sixth in rebounds at 2.7 per game.

Even so, for Ole Miss, Williams is invaluable. His greatest contribution, as his teammates and coach tell it, is his leadership. "He's taken ownership, verbally, of this team," Kennedy said. He's proven a galvanizing figure, spearheading a turnaround of five straight wins to close the season, including three in Nashville.

"Nobody will ever be able to take this away from us," Williams said. "It's great to finally do something so special that hasn't been done in a while, but we want to do something else.

"We want to try and win some more games, try to do something crazy."

Because Williams has many more celebrations left in him, more memories to store. Memories to recall back to once his college career comes to an end, whenever that may be, be it a week from now or in Atlanta, Ga., site of the Final Four.

But no matter what happens, win or lose, he'll take it all in - as he did Sunday, sprawled out on the court, confetti raining down.

"It's going to be so much fun to play these games with these guys," he said.

And, if the "heart and soul" has it his way, celebrate one last time.

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