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Wings and Prayer Power Ole Miss

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There’s the bespectacled young coach who bows his head and leads a prayer before his weekly news conferences.

There’s the 5-foot-5 point guard who became the tallest man in Mississippi when his buzzer-beating three-point basket vaulted Ole Miss to the Sweet 16 last season.

There’s the “Provine Posse,” three Rebel starters from Jackson Provine High who pride themselves on the best man-to-man defense in the Southeastern Conference.

And there is the huge void in the middle, no center on the roster, no answer for a certain big man in Westwood who slugs milk from half-gallon jugs during interviews.

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As UCLA becomes familiar with its first-round NCAA tournament opponent, one question looms larger than all the quirky details: Does M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I spell elimination for the Bruins?

No doubt, the potential is there. Ninth-seeded Ole Miss, which will play UCLA on Friday night in Pittsburgh, mangled two top-10 Southeastern Conference opponents--Florida by 17 points and Alabama by 28.

But the Rebels have lost six of their last nine and appear plagued by the same inconsistency as the No. 8-seeded Bruins. And they are vulnerable to a monster performance by UCLA’s 6-11 Dan Gadzuric, whose calcium-fueled late-season surge could continue against a team with no starter taller than 6-8.

Mississippi does operate in a calmer environment. Unlike the constant criticism endured by UCLA Coach Steve Lavin, nobody is calling for the head of Coach Rod Barnes, a popular 36-year-old former Ole Miss guard who has led the team to the NCAA tournament in three of his four seasons.

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His deeply held religious convictions bother few--as long as he continues to reel in the state’s top recruits. The knock on previous Rebel coaches was that the best home-grown talent escaped to Kentucky, Arkansas and other SEC powers.

But a change was signaled when Barnes signed highly regarded 6-8 forward Justin Reed, a Parade All-American from state champion Provine two years ago. Two of Reed’s high school teammates, forward Aaron Harper and guard David Sanders, eventually made their way to Oxford as well.

The triple coup revealed that the mild-mannered Barnes can be cagey. He hired Provine Coach Wayne Brent as an assistant in 1998, and the players followed.

“I knew I didn’t want them anywhere I wasn’t at,” said Brent, who has known Reed and Harper since they were 11 years old. “I tell you, I’m selfish about it. I didn’t want anybody else coaching them.”

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Reed, a sophomore, has blossomed into one of the SEC’s best players, leading the team in scoring (14.6 points a game) and rebounds (7.6).

“Justin has really matured and become a great player in his own way and his own time,” Barnes said. “He’s really stepped up the last 10-12 games. But UCLA has a bunch of Justin Reeds.”

Harper, a sophomore, averages 11.6 points and leads the team with 78 three-point baskets. Sanders, a redshirt sophomore who played his freshman year at Tallahassee Junior College, is a 6-3 guard who averages 12.7 points and is the best defensive player.

In Mississippi’s 68-51 victory over then-No. 6-ranked Florida, Sanders held hot-shooting guard Brett Nelson scoreless.

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“I just try to give the team some intangibles, some things that really don’t show up on the stat sheet,” Sanders said.

Humility is a common thread with the Rebels, long considered behind Mississippi State and an also-ran in the powerful SEC. They don’t want UCLA to believe an ambush is possible. “We don’t have any McDonald’s All-Americans,” Sanders said. “Now, I do love to eat at McDonald’s. If they counted all the money I spent at McDonald’s, then I’d be an All-American.”

Another assistant is responsible for the presence of the diminutive Jason Harrison. Barnes took over when Rob Evans left for Arizona State in 1998 and hired Henderson State Coach Eric Bozeman as an assistant. Harrison, considered too short for Division I, was set to enroll at Division II Henderson State in his native Arkansas, but decided to follow Bozeman and walk on.

He endured chants of “Web-ster, Web-ster” and “Gar-y Cole-man,” but by last season Harrison grew in stature, gaining third-team All-SEC honors. And he became a giant in Rebel lore in the second round of last season’s tournament, making the three-point shot that beat Notre Dame.

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The heroics haven’t stopped. Harrison, who averages 10.0 points and 3.9 assists, triggered Mississippi’s 84-56 victory over Alabama in a regular-season finale the Rebels believed they had to win to gain an NCAA berth.

“I am thankful, thankful to God, that I’ve had the chance to be Jason’s coach for these four years,” Barnes said. “It just proves that if you do the right thing, work extremely hard and believe in what you’re doing, you can succeed in life.”

Vintage Barnes, crediting the almighty along with one of his undersized, underdog players.

It’s an approach that has worked well enough for the former cotton picker from the Mississippi Delta to get feelers from Arkansas in its search for a replacement for Nolan Richardson.

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“I’ve never demanded our kids pray at practice or attend chapel; I just give them the option,” Barnes said. “But I don’t find much resistance. In our program, God is first, family is second and the team is third.”

Fourth, presumably, would be a victory over UCLA.


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