I was in Florida on vacation when The Pavilion at Ole Miss opened its doors for the first time Thursday, so Georgia was my first experience. I was blown away. Rebel basketball has never seemed more alive, and head coach Andy Kennedy said as much.
Even in a game when Ole Miss didn’t play all that well (the Rebels, admittedly, were running on fumes both physically and emotionally after another come-from-behind win over Alabama but two sleeps prior), the night was made special when star guard Stefan Moody sunk a ridiculous, contested layup with 3.8 seconds left for a 72-71 Rebel win. A nice-sized crowd in the 9,500-seat capacity arena exploded.
Ole Miss basketball (12-3, 2-1 SEC) felt big-time. This SEC game in early-January when school is out seemed important. Students - their section now pressed right up against the floor - again filled up their seats. This after they lined up outside hours before tipoff to get inside.
“It feels different to me, man,” Kennedy said. “You’re talking to a guy who’s seen the good, bad and the ugly. It feels different to me in (The Pavilion). I think our players sense that. I know our crowd senses it. We’ve become a basketball school overnight. It’s amazing.
“Spend $96 million and see what you get? What a bargain.”
Ole Miss spread out The Pavilion’s unveiling over a four-day stretch that included a ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday, the first men’s and women’s games in the arena and a reunion of past players.
Georgia (8-5, 1-2 SEC) nearly spoiled the party, or at least almost put a damper on things. Ole Miss trailed by as many as 15 after jumping out to a 15-5 lead. Georgia closed out the first half with a 27-8 run, and the Rebels didn’t get an advantage again until going up 65-64 and 2:35 to play in the game.
Ole Miss dug deep and found a way. Georgia seemingly sealed a win when Bulldog guard J.J. Frazier nailed a 3 with 58 seconds left. Rasheed Brooks, though, responded with a 3 of his own, and after the Moody make, it was Brooks who tipped the pass that altered the 3-point, game-winning shot attempt of Kenny Gaines that handed Ole Miss the second of back-to-back wins to kick off the arena that, until tonight, never felt real.
Kennedy attributed the win to “guts.” Moody said the team fed off the fans. Regardless of where the motivation came from, the Rebels refused to lose and made what was already a special week in the history of Ole Miss basketball downright historic.
“It’s been a lot different, really from the energy standpoint,” Moody, who scored a game-high 29 points, said. “Just the crowd, how many people we have here in attendance. That just brings a lot of energy to us as players and translates to the game.”
Ole Miss has seen a team reach the Sweet 16. Kennedy has taken the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament in two out of the last three seasons, and his 2013 team won an SEC tournament championship.
All special moments. No question. But I’d argue they don’t top this week. Not with the arrival of hope, optimism and the promise of what could be. The future is bright. Just today Ole Miss landed a commitment from three-star wing J.J. Smith. Smith is rated a four-star most everywhere else. The Rebels will host five-star center Wendell Carter Jr. next weekend for Florida.
“There hasn’t been as many as we’d all like, but there’s been some good moments in the history of this program,” Kennedy said. “I’m not sure what you can do to top these last 72 hours. It’s really been incredible. What a 72 hours for Ole Miss basketball.”
“You have to give the people of Ole Miss credit,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. “They’ve built a phenomenal building. They made a decision to really raise the level of their basketball facility. Andy has done a phenomenal job here, and now he has an advantage with this building. It’s very first class.”
When the administration announced plans for a new basketball arena seven or so years ago, I did my best not to roll my eyes.
I’ve been around Ole Miss sports all my life, and my Tad Smith Coliseum memory cup runneth over. Basketball has always been the third sport - the bridge sport from football to baseball for many. Fans were as into the game as they’ve ever been Saturday night. There may have been more in attendance Thursday, but Saturday was louder.
I was standing in the Ole Miss tunnel when Moody made the shot. The roar that rang throughout the stands was unlike anything I’d heard before for an Ole Miss basketball game. The only comparison was when the Marshall Henderson-led Rebels beat Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament in Kansas City in 2013. This time, though, all in attendance were cheering for Ole Miss.
I laughed under my breath. Because what Ole Miss has finally done, even if it took decades to get here, is make a true commitment to basketball.
I honestly never thought I’d see the day.
“It’s just a different feel here to me,” Kennedy said.
Me, too, man. Me, too.