By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – As Ole Miss basketball experiences the great exhale after wrapping up a significant and long-sought achievement, the moment in time becomes equal parts celebration and preparation.
The Rebels, a West Region 12 seed who will face 5 seed Wisconsin in an NCAA tournament second-round game on Friday, must put emotions of joy behind them and focus on top-level competition.
Ole Miss (26-8) won the school’s second SEC tournament championship capping its three-day run with Sunday’s 66-63 win over No. 13 Florida.
More importantly the Rebels clinched an NCAA tournament berth for the first time under Andy Kennedy after multiple trips to the bubble.
The immense pride players feel in claiming an SEC title was still on display Tuesday as senior guard Nick Williams laid his championship cap near the mike next to him as he addressed the media.
The Rebels are flying to Kansas City early today.
“This is probably the first time I took it off since Sunday,” Williams said.
With the hat coming off, it was time for business on Tuesday.
“Today coming in here is probably the first time I’ve thought about Sunday. Yesterday was great, we rejoiced a little bit, but today, I didn’t really hear guys talking about it,” Williams said. “We want to win Friday. We’re not just happy getting here. It’s been fun, and we’ve done some great things, but we want to win.”
Not everyone on campus was finished talking about the SEC tournament Tuesday morning. Fellow students in Murphy Holloway’s math class gave him a standing ovation.
Kennedy is not overly concerned about a championship hangover. He wants the Rebels to play with the focus and determination they showed in Nashville.
Above all, he wants them to be loose and not intimidated by their bold new frontier.
The last time Ole Miss (28-6) played in an NCAA tournament was 2002. These players were in grade school then.
“This team doesn’t play well when it’s tight. I certainly want to avoid that, and I certainly want them to enjoy what they accomplished,” Kennedy said.
Holloway doesn’t believe the bright lights of college basketball’s biggest stage will inhibit the Rebels.
“I think we belong. We’ve earned it, and we belong to be in this spot,” he said.
well wishes pour in
Former Ole Miss players have reached out to congratulate Kennedy.
Williams has interacted with some of his former teammates, guard Chris Warren and forward Terrance Henry, who were a part of the journey with him before this season.
Warren’s final season was two years ago. He finished as the program’s third-leading scorer. Henry was part of a team that reached the NCAA bubble last year when the Rebels lost in the SEC semifinals against eventual champ Vanderbilt.
“It’s just been tough, man, being so close (to the NCAA tournament). It broke my heart not send Chris out with a tournament appearance, and Terrance is like one of my best friends,” Williams said. “At least I get to go.”