‘Living my dream’

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – M.J. Rhett had to put his phone away Tuesday night. The phone calls and texts were too much, and he eventually had to get some sleep.

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At final count, Rhett estimated he received about 120 texts and 30 calls. More than a typical day, to be sure, but such an outpouring of support from family, friends and just about everyone else is to be expected after his performance against BYU in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Rhett was the catalyst in leading the Rebels to an improbable, come-from-behind 94-90 play-in win that sent Ole Miss to Jacksonville, Fla., to face Xavier Thursday at 3:10 p.m. CST. He scored a career-high 20 points, including 14 in the second half.

“I was in the zone,” he said. “My confidence went sky high and I got going. My teammates know when I get going, it’s going to go good from there.”

Ask around the Ole Miss locker room and the answer from any player and coach will be pretty much the same. The potential has always been there for Rhett to break out. It’s finding a consistent night-in, night-out rhythm on the offensive end that’s proven to be a challenge.

“He sees how easy it is for him to take over the game,” junior guard Martavious Newby said. “He did it yesterday and proved to a lot of people he’s on the radar.”

Rhett had plenty of options in April as a one-year graduate transfer from Tennessee State. He received significant interest from a handful of SEC schools, as well as such basketball powers as North Carolina and defending NCAA champion Connecticut.

Schools coveted his double-double ability (Rhett was 18th in the nation with nine last season), as well his impressive combination of size and athleticism. Ole Miss made the most sense. Not only did head coach Andy Kennedy offer a starting job in a front court that desperately needed a boost, but the Rebels play in the SEC, which Rhett said fit his style.

“It was too tough,” he said of his decision. “But I felt like the SEC was home. Me playing in the SEC, that’s my style of play and that’s what I wanted to do. Out of all the schools that were recruiting me in the SEC, I felt like Ole Miss was the best fit for me.”

“When I first saw M.J.,” Newby said, “I thought he was going to be a beast. He’s starting to bring it out.”

His one and only season at Ole Miss hasn’t been perfect. Even with Tuesday night’s game factored in, Rhett is averaging a solid but unspectacular 7.3 points per game and 4.7 rebounds.

However, in two of his last three games, he’s brought the offensive presence Ole Miss lacked a year ago as it missed the postseason altogether – the offensive presence it thought it was going to get from Rhett from day one.

“I’m so proud for him,” Kennedy said of Rhett, who’s scored 18 points or better in two of his last three games. “He’s a great kid, and he’s worked hard. This is a hard transition. You go from playing in the Ohio Valley (at Tennessee State) to now being a keep component in an SEC team getting to the NCAA tournament. The level at which you have to play consistently, I think, was a little bit surprising to him.

“But he stayed the course. He never made excuses, he worked and he’s really developed into a very good shooter.”

Rhett proved Kennedy right in the final minute against BYU. Cougar guard Chase Fischer made a 3-pointer to cut the Ole Miss lead to two at 87-85. The Rebels’ furious comeback, the outcome they had worked so hard for, was very much in doubt.

Senior point guard Jarvis Summers rolled off a ball screen and found Rhett at the free throw line. Without hesitation, Rhett rose and fired. Good. His ninth make in 11 attempts.

“Biggest shot of the game,” Kennedy said. “He didn’t hesitate. Stepped right into it and knocked it down like he has all year.”

Maybe not all year. But definitely at the right time with March Madness in full swing. For Rhett, though, this is how it was always supposed to be.

Now, it’s all falling into place.

“We’ve got plenty more to do, but I feel like I did what I had to do when I came here,” he said. “I don’t regret anything. I’m just living my dream. It’s all coming true.”

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