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Ole Miss Flying High At SEC Tournament

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Ole Miss shortstop Grae Kessinger (Photo by Bobby McDuffie, Getty Images)

Last Saturday, Mississippi edged Tennessee, 5-4, in Knoxville to snap a six-game losing streak. The Rebels came to the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., in a funk and in need of something to get them back on track before the NCAA Tournament begins next week.

What a difference a week makes. Ole Miss on Saturday defeated Georgia, 5-3, to advance to Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game, where it will face top-seeded Vanderbilt.

The Rebels have flipped last week’s script and will now carry momentum into regionals. Ole Miss started the week by beating Missouri, 4-3, on Tuesday. Then, when the double-elimination portion of the tournament began Wednesday, it lost, 5-3, against Arkansas. It got no-hit for eight innings the next day by Texas A&M lefthander John Doxakis but scratched out a run in the ninth and won, 1-0. Ole Miss got its revenge on Arkansas on Friday, coming back to score the final three runs in a 3-2 victory.

Coach Mike Bianco said he thought coming into the tournament that the Rebels would be able to hit the reset button in Hoover.

“We stumbled the last two weeks and we came here, and I thought we had a chance to find ourselves here, which we did,” he said. “You get hot and all of a sudden people forget about the last two weeks and you go to the postseason and you start playing well. I think sometimes that happens to older teams.”

Ole Miss hasn’t had an easy path in Hoover. Missouri was facing a game that felt like a must-win for its postseason hopes. A&M was playing for a chance to host a regional. And in Arkansas and Georgia, Ole Miss faced two teams that are expected to be top-eight overall seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

But at ever turn, the Rebels kept finding a way. They are now 8-3 the last two years in the SEC Tournament and have a chance to repeat as tournament champions.

The Rebels took a similar path through the tournament last year. They didn’t have to play Tuesday’s single-elimination games in 2018 but lost their first game in the double-elimination portion, falling into the losers’ bracket, as they did this year. They then ran off four straight wins to win their first SEC Tournament title since 2006.

Shortstop Grae Kessinger, who hit a crucial home run Saturday, said last year’s experience has helped the Rebels this week.

“The first one was a close one then we lost in the first round of double elimination and it seemed all too familiar,” the junior said. “We didn’t lose any confidence. Just started finding ways to win.”

A key all week has been Ole Miss’ pitching staff. The Rebels’ powerful offense has scuffled down the stretch this season, but its pitching, which started the year shakily, has stepped up in Hoover. The Rebels have given up just 11 runs in five games in the tournament, getting impressive performances from up and down their pitching staff, from frontline starters Will Ethridge and Doug Nikhazy and closer Parker Caracci to some pitchers that haven’t been used as much this season.

Righthander Houston Roth who has spent much of the year in the bullpen started Saturday and gave Ole Miss 4.2 solid innings. Four relievers, led by sophomore righthander Max Cioffi, who hadn’t pitched in a game in two weeks, combined for 4.1 scoreless innings to allow the offense time to comeback.

“A guy like Cioffi hasn’t pitched in a few weeks and comes out and does that against a really good Georgia team,” Bianco said. “Kaleb Hill coming in and getting two lefthanders out and of course Parker, we’ve talked about him all week. To show up on the third (straight) day, that’s tough.

“Proud of all of them. Not just the relievers, but the starters as well.”

Ole Miss is running low on pitching heading into the championship game against Vanderbilt, which has the best offense in the SEC and has been able to stick to its typical weekend rotation, meaning senior righthander Patrick Raby will start in his usual Sunday spot.

But Ole Miss got its offense going better against Georgia, pounding out 11 hits against righthanders Emerson Hancock and Tony Locey, the Bulldogs’ top two starters who worked in a piggyback arrangement Saturday.

Ole Miss has been streaky all season long and now seems to have found its form at the perfect time. A win Sunday would likely mean the Rebels host a regional, completing an impressive rise through the RPI this week. But even if Ole Miss has to go on the road next weekend for regionals, this run in Hoover has it trending in the right direction ahead of the NCAA Tournament.

Ole Miss is just outside the top 20 in RPI and getting inside that range is typically a requirement for SEC teams to host a regional. Beating Vanderbilt would take care of that, but just getting back in the conversation after its struggles down the stretch has been impressive.

Bianco has a good handle on Ole Miss' hosting resume, citing its 20 wins against top-50 opponents and that its 38 games against such competition is the most in the nation. A week ago, it wasn't likely that Ole Miss would be in this position. But now?

"Yeah, I think a win (Saturday) does make it a little bit complicated," Bianco said. "There’s a lot to like about our team. It’s unfortunate we’re in this situation, but we kind of did it to ourselves. We’ve made a lot of amends this week toward that."

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