Remember the last time Rebs got this far?
(Writer’s note: This was my column on March 19, 2001, when Ole Miss defeated Notre Dame in Kansas City to reach the Sweet 16. Tonight: Same town, different arena and opponent 12 years later. We can only hope for as much drama and such a great game as that night at Kemper Arena.)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Ole Miss had fallen behind Notre Dame for the first time since halftime. Less than 50 seconds remained. The shot clock was ticking down. Nearly 15,000 screaming fans were on their feet. A national TV audience watched.
That’s when the smallest player in this NCAA Tournament jumped up and launched the biggest shot in 93 seasons of Ole Miss basketball. Jason Harrison, the Rebels’ pocket-sized rocket, nailed it.
Harrison said he never had a doubt. Neither did his coach, Rod Barnes.
Asked if he would have chosen any other player to take the shot, Barnes shook his head.
“In that situation, I want the ball in Jason’s hands,” Barnes said. “He makes plays.”
Never mind that Ole Miss had hit only 2 of 15 earlier 3-pointers.
Never mind that Harrison had missed the only two he had taken. Never mind that Harrison has undergone an uncharacteristic shooting slump lately, hitting only one of his previous 16 3-pointers.
Never mind all that. Jason Harrison is that rare athlete who is at his best when the stakes are highest and the pressure is at peak. He is the golfer who longs for a 6-foot downhill putt with the championship on the line. He’s the placekicker who wants the game-winning kick. He’s the guy you want at the plate with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the ninth.
He’s something else besides: He’s the toughest 5 foot, 5 inches and 155 pounds of basketball player you’re ever likely to see.
He has been called Shorty all his life. Here Sunday, you could just call him The Man.
He scored three of his team’s last four field goals. The first two he scored driving into the lane where he came up to chest level of the Irish defenders. He was like a shrub among tall trees.
“They were leaving me open,” Harrison said. “It was like they were baiting me to go in there, so I thought why not go in there and hit a pull-up jumper. I just took what they gave me.”
A choice of poison
Those two driving jumpers might have been why Notre Dame backed off Harrison so much at the end. That, and the scouting report that showed a 3-point shooting slump.
“We’d give him that shot 100 times,” Notre Dame point guard Martin Ingelsby said. “That was an NBA 3-pointer he took, but he hit it, and he won the game for them.”
Big Rahim Lockhart had carried the scoring load earlier. Lockhart scored 24 of his team’s first 43 points until Notre Dame began collapsing everyone but the cheerleaders around him.
Lockhart didn’t score over the game’s last 15 minutes, and the Rebels’ eight-point lead began to shrink. The Irish closed to within one point with about seven minutes to play, but that’s when Harrison hit those back-to-back shots in the lane to stretch the lead back out to five points.
“If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have,” Harrison said. “If they had guarded me, we’d have gotten the ball in to Rahim. You choose your poison with this team.”
`He’s a fighter’
The Ole Miss bench rose in unison, poised to celebrate, as Harrison jumped up for that last 3-pointer.
“Late in the game, there’s nobody better,” said sophomore John Gunn, who towers nearly a foot and a half over Harrison. “You want it in Jason’s hands. He’s a fighter. He’ll fight through anything. I mean, he’s tough. If you get down, he’ll get you back up.”
On the way to the post-game press conference, Lockhart rubbed Harrison’s head the way a daddy would a son’s.
“About time you hit one,” Lockhart said, laughing.
Harrison smiled. So did Barnes. “Lay off the little man,” Barnes said. “He took care of us today.”