Winning changes everything

ATLANTA - Funny thing, winning. It makes people re-evaluate all sorts of priorities and travel plans.

I was on Max Howell's radio show this morning for a few minutes. He asked what kind of crowd Ole Miss would have tonight for the SEC Tournament. I told him there should be a pretty good contingent of Ole Miss fans, and that the students were on board and there'd be a lot of them here.

He said he knew that for a fact. He has two nephews who are students at Ole Miss, and before they arrive in Destin to visit Max and his wife for spring break, they're attending the SEC Tournament.

We've been hearing those type stories for several weeks now as the Rebels won and fans got excited.

I see there's been some talk on the message board today about at least one writer mentioning that Thursday at this event is usually reserved for Mississippi teams and not Kentucky. Over the years I've heard the "Mississippi night" term used to refer to Thursday at the SEC Tournament.

With Mississippi State and Ole Miss getting first-round byes, things have changed. The SEC is balanced, especially the West, and the race this season was like few we've seen.

For Ole Miss people, it's all about tonight's late game, another matchup with LSU, and the chance to win it and take on defending national champion Florida again.

The Rebels and Gators played in January, a 79-70 win for Florida. That was in Gainesville. That was the game, the second half actually, that most Rebel players said was the turnaround for them this season. Even in defeat, they gained some confidence.

It was that type confidence that led to thrilling moments like the buzzer-beating shot by Clarence Sanders that defeated LSU 71-70 in Oxford.

Moments like those made a lot of folks re-think their mid-March plans, and that goes for students, alums, and sidewalk supporters. That's what winning'll do.

As you travel through Birmingham, if you're headed east-west on I-20, you go by the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center. It was in that building the SEC Tournament was reborn. It was 1979, and the 10-team league voted to bring back the postseason event that had been voted out in the early 1950s.

The Rebels played Kentucky in that first renewal. All-American John Stroud and company couldn't stop the powerful Wildcats and were shown the door after game one.

The following season, the Rebs beat Tennessee in the first game. Next up was Kentucky again, and you know what usually happens when the Wildcats are the foe in this event some call the Kentucky Invitational.

"We're 0-for-forever against Kentucky," Ole Miss head coach Bob Weltlich said after the loss. In a way he was right.

Then came 1981, and the third renewal of the SEC tourney. The underdog Rebels, who entered the event as the sixth-place team with a 13-13 overall record, won it all.

Ole Miss beat Tennessee 81-71 in game one. Superstar G/F Elston Turner fouled out against the Vols.

"Were you concerned when that happened?" a reporter asked Weltlich, who like his mentor and childhood friend Bob Knight was never at a loss for words in a press conference.

"Let me put it this way," said the animated, emotional, out-spoken coach of the Rebels. "If you left this building and let's say you owned a Cadillac and had driven it to the game. You go outside and the thing is gone. You can't find it anywhere. Would you be concerned? Yes, we were concerned."

But the Rebels played on. And later that night, Vanderbilt played Kentucky. The Rebels would get the winner. The 0-for-forever problem had been solved this time around as Vandy upset UK.

"Maybe it means it's our time," Andy Kennedy said after the Rebels' beat LSU with Sanders' game-winner in mid-February. That was the feeling among the Rebels and their fans after the Commodores beat the Wildcats back in '81.

The next night Ole Miss rolled past Vandy by 20 and headed to the finals to face the human highlights film, Dominique Wilkins, and the Georgia Bulldogs. The Rebels struggled and didn't lead until late. But they won, and the 66-62 win over the Bulldogs propelled Ole Miss to its first NCAA Tournament appearance where the Rebels lost to the Kansas Jayhawks.

Thousands of Ole Miss fans filled the Birmingham arena that night. There were way more Rebel fans than Georgia fans. There were a lot of tickets to be had for this one, too. Kentucky was gone and that meant tickets were available on the street. Hotty Toddies were heard all over Birmmingham that night, and well into the morning.

They'll honor Elston Turner tonight as the SEC's living legend from Ole Miss. A lot of Ole Miss students won't know the significance of that 1981 team that Turner played on.

All they know is that they've traveled here to Atlanta hoping to see the Rebels get to Sunday and maybe even win this thing.

Much like the fans and students who ended up making it to Birmingham back in 1981 as the Rebels surprised everyone and won the title.

The Rebels have made the finals in this event two other times, both losses, in 1990 in Orlando and in 2001 in Nashville.

If they get to Sunday this time around, will an NCAA Tournament bid be theirs win or lose?

That's what we're hoping to find out. And why a lot of Ole Miss fans and students are making their way to Atlanta today, or are already here.

Winning will do that every time.

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