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Rebels get a bounce heading into SEC Tournament

JACKSON — In terms of the standings, Saturday’s 5-4 win over Tennessee in the season finale didn’t do a whole lot for Ole Miss.

It might have bumped them up a line or two in seeding for the Southeastern Conference Tournament and did give them a winning record in the league, but it was the intangibles it provided that were so much more important than a number in the win column.

Saturday’s victory snapped a six-game losing streak and gave the Rebels (33-23) a shot of confidence and adrenaline as they prepare to defend their SEC tournament championship this week in Hoover, Ala.

“Winning the game is obviously going to give us confidence. We were on a skid and that’s just part of the game. It’s just going to give us confidence going into the tournament and going into a regional, and that’s big for us,” Ole Miss third baseman Tyler Keenan said. “It was a big mental thing. We all know it’s part of the game. Losing and being on a skid is part of it, but we didn’t want to be there and winning that game was huge for us.”

Ole Miss will open the tournament Tuesday at 1 p.m. against Missouri (34-21-1), which took two of three games when the teams played a series in Columbia back in late March. That’s an eternity in college baseball terms, and Ole Miss shortstop Grae Kessinger said it was hard to take too much away from the earlier meetings other than a healthy respect for their opponent.

“You’re still getting your feet rolling at that point in the year and they’re still getting going. Parts of the pitching staff and your lineup change. Lots of things, I’m sure, are different,” Kessinger said. “It’s going to come down to who makes the most plays and the most pitches. It should be fun.”

Both teams are limping into the postseason. Missouri has lost four in a row, and five of six, while Ole Miss lost six in a row before its victory over Tennessee and has a 3-8 record in May.

There are some obvious reasons for the Rebels’ late slump — a bullpen that has struggled, an offense that has been shut out in its last two series openers — but Kessinger said it all boiled down to the Rebels getting away from what made them a Top 20 team during the first half of the season.

“We’ve had a couple of weeks where we stopped playing the ball we want to play. The good in it, though, is we know we can. We have all the belief in the world in each other and the guys,” Kessinger said. “For whatever reason it hasn’t worked the last couple of weeks and we haven’t been playing our best ball, but we’ve seen spurts of it and it’s just a matter of staying confident and taking it one pitch at a time. If you do that, then the ability’s there. It’ll turn for us.”

The Rebels will also be able to draw on some recent experience in Hoover. They won the tournament last season by battling through the losers’ bracket and winning four consecutive elimination games — two of them by one run.

This time they’ll have to win a single-elimination game on Tuesday to advance to the double-elimination round of the tournament.

“Getting the experience last year, you know what it takes. You know the focus and how to do it. Hopefully we can have a good week and play a little while,” Kessinger said.

The Rebels might need to make a deep run in the SEC Tournament to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive, as well. The six-game losing streak dropped their RPI ranking — the NCAA’s primary metric to determine at-large bids — to No. 31 in the country. That should be good enough to make the 64-team field, but a one-and-done performance in Hoover might open the door for other teams to pass them up.

If nothing else, Keenan said, a couple of wins this week would reassure the Rebels that the worst of their slump is over.

“I think we’ve done enough to get in, but I think it would be good for us to have a run,” Keenan said. “It’s big for a team to get on a roll and get hot, and it’d be big for us going into a regional.”

SEC Tournament
At Hoover, Ala.
Single elimination
May 21

Game 1 – Florida vs. Texas A&M, 9:30 a.m.
Game 2 – Missouri vs. Ole Miss, 1 p.m.
Game 3 – Tennessee vs. Auburn, 4:30 p.m.
Game 4 – South Carolina vs. LSU, 8 p.m.
Double elimination
May 22

Game 5 – Georgia vs. Florida-Texas A&M winner, 9:30 a.m.
Game 6 – Arkansas vs. Missouri-Ole Miss winner, 1 p.m.
Game 7 – Vanderbilt vs. Tenn.Auburn winner, 4:30 p.m.
Game 8 – Mississippi St. vs. South Carolina-LSU winner, 8 p.m.
May 23
Game 9 – Loser Game 5 vs. Loser Game 6, 9:30 a.m.
Game 10 – Loser Game 7 vs. Loser Game 8, 1 p.m.
Game 11 – Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 6, 4:30 p.m.
Game 12 – Winner Game 7 vs. Winner Game 8, 8 p.m.
May 24
Game 13 – Winner Game 9 vs. Loser Game 11, 3 p.m.
Game 14 – Winner G10 vs. Loser G12, 6:30 p.m.
Single elimination
May 25
Game 15 – Winner Game 13 vs. Winner Game 11, Noon
Game 16 – Winner G14 vs. Winner G12, 3:30 p.m.
May 26
Championship game, 2 p.m.

SEC Tournament champions
2018 – Ole Miss
2017 – LSU
2016 – Texas A&M
2015 – Florida
2014 – LSU
2013 – LSU
2012 – Mississippi State
2011 – Florida
2010 – LSU
2009 – LSU
2008 – LSU
2007 – Vanderbilt
2006 – Ole Miss
2005 – Mississippi State
2004 – South Carolina
2003 – Alabama
2002 – Alabama
2001 – Mississippi State
2000 – LSU
1999 – Alabama
1998 – Auburn
1997 – Alabama
1996 – Alabama
*1995 – Tennesse and LSU
*1994 – Tennessee and LSU
*1993 – Tennessee and LSU
1992 – LSU
1991 – Florida
x-1990 – LSU and Mississippi State
1989 – Auburn
1988 – Florida
1987 – Mississippi State
1986 – LSU
1985 – Mississippi State
1984 – Florida
1983 – Alabama
1982 – Florida
1981 – Florida
1980 – Vanderbilt
1979 – Mississippi State
1978 – Auburn
1977 – Ole Miss
*Separate tournaments were held for teams in the Eastern and Western divisions
x-LSU and Mississippi State were declared co-champions when the championship game was rained out

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured sports reporters in the paper's 137-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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