Ole Miss proves it belongs in Big Dance

DAYTON, Ohio -- The walls of their locker room are still plastered with all the preseason magazines that predicted there wouldn’t be a postseason for the Ole Miss Rebels.

The Rebels were still sweating out their chances of going to the NCAA tournament when the final spots in the field were announced Sunday.

And just 48 hours after finally sneaking into the field, Ole Miss was well on its way once again to proving its many doubters right as the Brigham Young Cougars raced to a double-digit lead Tuesday night at UD Arena in the First Four.

But with one massive dunk after another in a come-from-behind 94-90 victory, the Rebels silenced all those critics, firmly established their place in the field moving forward -- and prepared to tear down every last one of those decorations coach Andy Kennedy made sure they saw all season long.

“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s all coming down,” sophomore forward Sebastian Saiz said. “That’s been all over the locker room. It’s on all the doors. When you open the door, it’s the first thing you see.

“Nobody believed in us, but we proved to everybody that they’re wrong. We belonged here.”

If the Rebels can duplicate the kind of effort they put on display after halftime, they just might be sticking around for a while.

Seemingly left for dead after dropping four of their last five games entering Selection Sunday, without a win over a ranked opponent since January and then falling behind BYU by 17 at intermission thanks to its lights-out 3-point shooting, Ole Miss could have easily lost the belief that it belonged in the face of mounting evidence that it didn’t.

Instead, Stefan Moody started pouring in clutch jumpers, scoring a team-high 26 points. M.J. Rhett abused the rim with a barrage of dunks in the post, racking up four of them in the second half. A defense that had no answer for BYU’s sharpshooters in the early going ramped up the intensity, forced 10 turnovers, and then turned almost all of those positive plays on one end into offense on the other with a comically lopsided 25-0 edge in points off turnovers.

And in the end, the Rebels collectively sent a message not just that the bid to the Big Dance had been earned, but also that Xavier might want to be careful in their matchup Thursday.

“That was gratifying,” Kennedy said. “Certainly gratifying for a team group that nobody thought would be in this tournament. When the magazines came out in September, October, nobody had the Rebels pegged as an NCAA tournament team. Not one -- because I used that as motivation.

“Not one person believed this team could be here. Then many believed, ‘OK, they’re there, do they deserve it?’ I think we proved it.”

BYU certainly can’t argue, even though it also spent a half looking as if it might be a formidable opponent moving forward thanks to its blistering 3-point shooting and its ability to control the tempo on offense.

Perhaps the fact that both teams took a turn looking so dangerous suggests both programs were worthy of inclusion. Maybe the two disparate halves are just indicative of evenly matched opponents who will quickly be forgotten in the deeper rounds of the tournament.

Either way, Ole Miss is the one that gets to control the conversation now. And it already has a decisive answer to any argument against it.

“We were kind of nervous [Sunday], I’m not going to lie to you,” Saiz said. “But we came up here to win, and we’re not going to give up now.”

Tearing down the magazine covers in their locker room is going to have to wait.

Ole Miss isn’t going home yet.