Ole Miss likely needed four wins in four days of SEC tournament play to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third time in the last four seasons. Instead, the Rebels are going home, one and done after an 81-73 second-round loss to Alabama Thursday night.
Sebastian Saiz couldn’t hide his frustration. “It feels like somebody died,” he said, the junior Ole Miss forward still in uniform as he slumped in a chair. “Our (expletive) season is over. That’s how it feels. They made plays. We couldn’t guard a (expletive) cup of water.”
Rasheed Brooks never looked up. He avoided eye contact with each and every person as he listened to music while he changed. Martavious Newby kept quiet, first hiding out in the shower before eventually retreating to his locker at the end of the room. Anthony Perez packed up his things and left quickly. Most everyone was in a hurry, even if they weren’t moving very fast.
Then there was Stefan Moody, one of the greatest players in Ole Miss basketball history. He sat alone, too, only he was watching basketball highlights on his phone. The sting of the loss was fresh, sure, but he allowed for a moment of reflection.
Because there was a time when he never thought he’d get another Division-I opportunity. Two summers ago, he was an obscure junior college prospect with few opportunities, which was par for the course, really. Moody has never felt appreciated, always carrying himself as the underdog who dares you to challenge him.
“Us not being able to continue on and play is not a good way to end your career,” said Moody, whose team finished 20-12 on the year and is likely headed to the NIT. “When I look back, I know I’ll be able to tell myself that I gave 100 percent effort and did everything I possibly could. It just wasn’t in our favor to continue on.”
Andy Kennedy believed in him when no one else would.
Jerry Mullens, considered in college basketball circles to be the “grandfather” of junior college basketball recruiting, ranks the top-100 players in junior college each season, capped by a two-day weekend showcase in July. Mullens invites around 25 additional players to try to play their way into the top-100 the Friday before each showcase. He typically leaves six or seven slots open to see if a player has what it takes to play his way in.
Stefan Moody attempted to make his case in 2013. Despite being a decorated player at Florida Atlantic in 2012-13, when he was named the Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year, he wasn’t receiving much attention outside of Ole Miss.
Moody didn’t play well enough, failing to earn a spot in the top-100. Yet Ole Miss kept pursuing him, and after he signed with the Rebels, Moody had the greatest impact of any JUCO player in a Power Five conference, earning first-team All-SEC honors last season after leading the Rebels and ranking fourth in the SEC in scoring (16.6 points per game). His 18.6 points per game in league play tied for the conference lead.
A year later, Moody has cemented his place as inarguably one of the most-decorated players to wear the red and blue. Seventeen more assists (which will have to come with a run in the NIT), would pair him with LSU great Pete Maravich as the only two players in SEC history with 700 points and 150 assists in a single season. He’s already just the fifth player in Ole Miss history and the 26th player in SEC history to top 700 points.
“There were a lot of teams that looked over me my whole life,” he said. “I just stayed the course and kept putting in work. Over time, I was blessed enough to come across some great coaches who believed in me. A.K. gave me an opportunity and I took it and ran with it.”
“He’s been a special player for us,” Kennedy said. “I’ve said that a lot here at the end. You try not to heap too much praise on one of your current players while you’re in the grind, but now that we’re done and you look back, I mean, obviously, he’s the most dynamic playmaker in the history of our program, most certainly in my 10 years.”
Moody deserved better. He scored 39 points in the loss — tied for the second-most in an SEC tournament game — on 12 of 27 from the floor and 8 of 17 from 3. His teammates combined for 34 points (14 of 40 FGs), and Tomasz Gielo was the only other Rebel to reach double-digit points.
He should have been given a sendoff on the biggest stage in college basketball in the NCAA Tournament. Such a player is what March Madness was made for. Just ask Marshall Henderson.
Instead, he had to settle for a standing ovation as the final seconds ticked away in a loss few will remember years from now. At least all in attendance paid respect, from the Kentucky and Mississippi State fans who stood and applauded in the stands, to a handshake from Alabama head coach Avery Johnson and a hug from Kennedy.
“The first thing I said was, you know, great game. You’re just a joy to watch,” Johnson said. “You play the game the right way. You’re a fierce competitor. But what I wanted to say was I’m glad that I don’t have to coach against you anymore in the SEC tournament.”
“I wasn’t even paying attention to it at first,” Moody said. “I don’t even know how I found out. I was trying to stay on the court still. I guess it’s a good feeling, but I’m still consumed by the fact that we lost. I like winning.”
Ole Miss will soon reset and turn to 2016-17. Miami (Fla.) transfer Deandre Burnett is next in line to step in as the team’s leading scorer, while a core of Saiz, Brooks and others offers promise for what could be.
Rebel basketball will continue on, as it always does. But off into the sunset will ride Stefan Moody, robbed of another NCAA Tournament, of another chance to play meaningful basketball.
This wasn’t a season of turmoil, per se, for Ole Miss, but it was certainly a test of endurance. Dwight Coleby transferred to Kansas last spring and crippled the Rebels’ front-court depth. Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey was retroactively ruled ineligible by Ole Miss in July (after spending weeks on campus) and sent to Florida for prep school, setting his development back half a season. Then came the rash of injuries, including a nagging hamstring pull for Moody and a six-game absence for Saiz due to a partially detached retina.
The Rebels had their opportunities, though. They came up short. It just wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not for one of the best to ever, a back-to-back All-SEC first team selection and Howell Trophy winner. He scored 20-plus points 22 times this season, eclipsed the 30-point mark five times and topped 40 once. He was the third-highest power-conference scorer in the nation, and he holds a 19.6 points per game career scoring average, which ranks sixth in school history.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. So he sat, his voice barely audible as he answered questions.
He went out as quiet as he came in — with hardly a sound.