Early March conversation: It's hoops

That any of us are actually trying to decide whether Ole Miss is champs or co-champs of the SEC West is almost laughable.

No, not because of the debate itself. But think about it. Back in November or even January, did you really think any of us would be having this as part of our conversation in early March?

Now that's what's funny. That there's even a topic like this among us is amazing.

Ole Miss, picked last in the league by all, finished the regular season of 30 games with 19 wins. Lost only once at home all season. Went 7-1 at home in Southeastern Conference play.

A bye in the first round of the SEC tourney next week? A banner to hang above the court they ruled this season?

You kiddin' me?

Todd Abernethy, the Hoosier who along with his teammates created a hysteria not seen in these parts in several seasons, said the turning point came against Florida in Gainesville back on Jan. 20, a 79-70 UM loss.

"We knew then we could play with anybody in the country," said Todd, the senior point guard, after the Rebels completed the sweep of Auburn, this time by an 83-79 count.

Florida was ranked No. 1. The Rebels were down 25 in the second half. They battled back and actually won the second half 44-34 over what back then appeared to be an invincible swamp of Gators.

Today Todd scored 15 points with eight assists, had only three turnovers but three big steals, including one near game's end that led to a Jermey Parnell layup that gave the Rebels a 79-77 edge with 33 seconds to go.

Todd knew back then he and his his teammates could play with anybody. Except for a loss to Kentucky on Jan. 6, they proved, at home at least, they could beat anybody. The 15 home victories ties a school record.

There's always been some kind of magic at Tad Smith. It usually helps when the Rebels are good.

Example. The LSU game when Clarence Sanders netted a three-pointer from the right corner to give Ole Miss the lead with less than a second left in a 71-70 victory on February 14.

Some fans had already fallen for this team. On Valentine's night, the rest did. Sanders made sure of that.

Clarence, with 18 points today, is a senior whose second season at Ole Miss is surely ending better than his first when he all but defected. He said the shot against LSU was even bigger than his 3-pointer today that tied the game at 77 with 39 seconds to go.

"Because it was the game-winner," he said of the shot that sent LSU home with a loss.

What he should have added but didn't was that the Rebels would never have been in position to become champions today without the Valentine's night arrow through the hearts of Rebel fans, which for LSU was a dagger.

Auburn, playing as well lately as anybody in the league with three straight wins, must have had a little bit of the same feeling that LSU had just over two weeks ago.

Bam Doyne, with 19 points today and rarely at a loss for words, couldn't find just the right ones to say after this one. But Bam is Bam, and you stop, look, and listen as he speaks.

He had missed four free throws in eight attempts during the game's first 39 minutes and 56 seconds. In the final four seconds, he made four of four.

"Never a doubt," Doyne said of the final four free throws, smiling wryly and rolling his eyes a bit. "I had to seal it."

At 19-11 overall and 8-8 in league play, the man who is in charge of Rebel basketball says the win today might not have sealed the Rebels any bid to the NCAA Tournament. He knows that's still a long shot.

"But if we win a game (in Atlanta), I think we're back in the conversation," said Andy Kennedy, who should be the SEC Coach of the Year if the award means anything at all.

Certainly Ole Miss basketball is back in the conversation of its own fans. You know, the usual things, the ones so many knew in the fall and early winter we'd all be talking about in early March, right?

Like are the Rebels champs or co-champs?

Take your pick. All that truly matters at this point is that everybody's talking hoops again.

It's March. And at Tad Smith Coliseum this season, this Ole Miss team's created all kinds of madness.

On to Atlanta.

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