Tournament Time

They head now to Tampa/St. Petersburg after a regular season that began with an exhibition win late afternoon on Halloween against North Alabama. But they had no idea what was ahead for them in a trying and often troubling regular season.

The dates on the press releases from Ole Miss are: Nov. 7 – Trevor Gaskins out for the season; Nov. 18 – Eniel Polynice out for the season; Dec. 19 – Chris Warren out for the season.

After a November and December not to remember but to forget, they forged ahead into the new year with SEC play remaining, but little hope, at least from the outside looking in, of making much noise.

They lost the opener at Florida by 10, had trailed at halftime by 14, and cut it to seven late. They showed signs of unexpected life, especially on the boards, pounding the Gators 46-22 in the rebounding department.

They came home and beat Arkansas handily, a Razorback team still with a fairly glowing resume' that included wins over ranked teams Texas and Oklahoma. But LSU then pounded the Rebs 83-51 at home.

Victory was a made tip-in away at Alabama in a close loss, and a road trip to South Carolina proved fruitless.

Up next was Kentucky at home, and few could have predicted a Rebel win, which is ultimately what happened.

"Didn't see that one coming," was the cry this time from outside the inner circle. But some heads were turning as the Rebels, short-handed, were finding themselves.

A dramatic victory at Mississippi State and a lopsided home win against Auburn had the Rebels at 4-4 in league play.

Can this last? How long will the shortened roster be able to sustain it?

The wear and tear was showing up in some key players, like Zach Graham and David Huertas. At one point earlier it looked like Terrico White might be out for at least a few games, but that wasn't the case.

The bench was thinner than the preseason, but the Rebels' resolve had gotten stronger. The younger players, like Murphy Holloway, Will Bogan, Malcolm White, Terrance Henry, and certainly Terrico White, were improving. Some faster than others, but still getting better.

Games at Vandy and at LSU were going to be tough. But the Rebs hung tough, especially in Baton Rouge where they showed how far they had come, from a 32-point setback in Oxford to a seven-point loss on the future SEC champs' home court.

"What's left in the tank?" began to be asked as late February arrived. The Rebels were showing no real visible signs of wearing down, but they were there. They admitted it from time to time.

Back to back wins at home against Tennessee and Georgia put the Rebels back at .500 in league play. Four games remained.

What's left in the tank? They fought hard to stay close at Auburn before falling by 13. The tank looked even emptier in a 21-point loss at home to Alabama, a contest they were never really in.

Then came an opponent Ole Miss has had its best success against the past several years and in an arena that the Rebs have won more games than any road venue the past decade and a half. The Rebels beat Arkansas in overtime, and the Razorbacks became the only team Ole Miss would beat twice.

Was there one more win left, one more moment of glory before the largest home crowd of the season?

Almost. But MSU avenged the loss in Starkville with a slim two-point win over the arch-rival last Saturday.

There were questions about the tank again and if only fumes remained.

But the heart of this team was never questioned nor should it have been. At 16-14 overall and 7-9 in league play, they won some games many counted as losses before they tipped off. There was hope, until late on Saturday, real hope, that 8-8 in SEC play was right there for the taking.

Now, as Andy Kennedy pointed out Monday, they try to do something that's never been done here.

"And we'll use that as motivation," he said of the chance to beat Kentucky two times in one season.

Beating Kentucky again won't be easy. But what has been for this Rebel team?

The Wildcats often play their best in the SEC Tournament. They've lost four games to end the regular season and will need a run in Tampa/St. Pete to advance to the NCAA Tournament, which most in the Bluegrass feel is their God-given right.

But at 18-12 and 8-8, having lost eight of their last 11 games, they have to beat Ole Miss to have a shot at the NCAA Tournament. UK hasn't missed out on the Dance since 1991.

As for Ole Miss? Well, many seem to believe the Rebels have to beat Kentucky to have a shot at the NIT, which is the Rebels' real hope for postseason, save winning the whole thing in Tampa/St. Pete. They might need two wins to have a shot at returning to New York City.

And what about playing back to back days - or more - for a team that needs days between games just to heal? Will they physically be able to play Friday against SEC titliest LSU if they get past Kentucky?

But that can wait. Only the Wildcats are on their minds now. Beating Kentucky again would be another accomplishment for a team that in the preseason looked to have so much promise, and by the turn of the calendar wasn't sure at all what the future held.

The final story of this Ole Miss season has yet to be written. The coaches have done a remarkable job. The players have given more than they perhaps thought they could, raised their level of play and of preparation, toughness, and focus to new heights.

Is there anything left in the tank? Maybe we'll be asking that a few games longer.

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