How The West Was Won

The Mississippi State and Ole Miss basketball teams made history last weekend by sharing the Southeastern Conference Western Division title.

The Rebels claimed a tie for the West crown on Saturday with a 73-69 victory over Auburn. The Bulldogs earned a piece of their fifth division title by dismantling Alabama, 91-67, on Sunday.

The title is a remarkable achievement for the Rebels, who were picked to finish last in the SEC West in the preseason media poll, and the Bulldogs, who were supposed to finish fourth. So much for the experts.

Now it's on to Atlanta for the SEC Tournament, which begins Thursday. State and Ole Miss each got a bye until Friday by virtue of their finish in the West. (The Bulldogs got the No. 1 West seed thanks to a better division record.) The Rebels and Bulldogs were both 2-5 seven games into conference play and buried at the bottom of the horrendous SEC West.

Both teams have to win at least two games in the league tournament to earn a spot in the big show, the NCAA Tournament. Four East teams, led by defending national champion Florida, appear to have locked up NCAA bids. No West team has that luxury.

"We have to go over to the SEC Tournament and do some damage," State coach Rick Stansbury said. "I think you need to win two to assure yourself of getting in. If you go over there and win two, I don't think you can keep anyone out of the West out."

On Saturday, Ole Miss had Auburn right where it wanted the Tigers: At Tad Smith Coliseum in Oxford. The Rebels (19-11, 8-8 SEC) were 15-1 at home this season.

Andy Kennedy, a Louisville, Miss., native, might be in his first season as Rebels coach, but he is well aware of this team's history. The Rebels collapsed down the stretch in 2006 and finished last in the division. That cost coach Rod Barnes his job.

"From worst to first, our guys have been trying to use that as motivation all year," Kennedy told the Oxford Eagle. "How do you explain some of the games in this building (the Tad Pad) this year?

"These guys willed themselves to victories, that's the only explanation I can come up with. We found ourselves on the mat time and time again, but they kept getting up every time. That's a tribute to them."

The turnaround had to be sweetest for the Rebels' three seniors, Clarence Sanders, Bam Doyne and Todd Abernathy, who had endured three losing seasons in Oxford. They bought in to Kennedy's up-tempo style and led the way.

"The seeding doesn't matter. What matters is being division champions," Doyne told The Associated Press.

The Rebels next play on Friday at 8:45 p.m. (Ch. 12/97.3 FM) when they will face the winner of Thursday's Tennessee-LSU game. The Rebels whipped the Vols in Oxford and split with the Tigers.

MSU (17-12, 8-8 SEC) was happy to be at home in Starkville on Sunday at Humphrey Coliseum, where the Bulldogs finished the season with four straight wins.

Stansbury celebrated his team's comeback this season, saying, "This team didn't do it the easy way. … we were sitting there at 2-5 and with a young basketball team, they could have folded pretty easily. They kept believing and working … I am very proud of them."

State's season turned around thanks to the maturation of center Charles Rhodes, a Lanier High alum, and guard Jamont Gordon. After an inconsistent start, Rhodes, who said earlier this season that "championships run through me," returned to his form of last season. And Gordon figured out that an assist is as good as a basket.

The Bulldogs open the tournament on Friday at noon (Ch. 12/105.9 FM) against Kentucky or Alabama. ("Nice. Wish I hadn't asked," Stansbury joked when reporters told him whom State would play.) MSU lost at Kentucky and split with Alabama.

Beating Bama for the title made winning that much sweeter for State. There's lots of bad blood between these teams. No matter who they face next, the Bulldogs' confidence has never been higher.

"There is never any doubt in Mississippi State's locker room," Rhodes proclaimed Sunday. "Maybe in others, but not in Mississippi State's."

That goes for Ole Miss now, too.


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