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Harper's absence leaves void

By By Austin Bishop / EMG sports editor
ATLANTA Going into the Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament, Ole Miss' assignment was simple go deep into the event, or go home and pack up the gear.
The Rebels' hopes of winning at least two tournament games and forcing the National Invitational Tournament to at least consider them really lasted only about 10 minutes. Vanderbilt dominated the last 30 minutes of the contest on its way to a convincing 70-50 win here at the Georgia Dome on Thursday.
Midway through the first half, senior swingman Aaron Harper busted his lip hustling for a loose ball and took 17 stitches. The thud that resulted was not just the sound of Harper's head hitting the hardwood it was Ole Miss' season coming to an end.
That it did.
But the amazing thing is that Harper came back at all.
And Barnes wasn't about to get in the way.
It really wasn't surprising that Harper returned. That's just his nature. It's also the nature of his coach and the team as a whole.
The Rebels' motto might as well be, "You may beat us, kick us and bloody our mouths, but we are not going to quit."
And quit they didn't. Even when it was inevitable.
The season has been a frustrating one for the Rebels at times. Ole Miss, which was 8-3 outside of SEC play, found the going rough inside the league.
The Rebels went on a five-game SEC losing streak near the end of the regular season, dimming Ole Miss' hopes of postseason play.
But the Rebs gave a little hope to Barnes by taking a 55-45 win over visiting Arkansas on senior day to end the regular season, allowing Ole Miss to climb from the SEC West Division cellar and take a No. 5 seed into the SEC tournament.
A win over Vanderbilt would have pulled Ole Miss to .500 for the season and give the Rebels a shot at Mississippi State and a chance to grab the attention of the NIT powers that be.
But it just wasn't to be. The Commodores advance and the Rebels put away the sneakers. It's as simple as that.
You can say a lot of things about the Rebels: they aren't very big, they don't have much offense, they aren't very deep, they absolutely couldn't beat a good basketball team away from Tad Smith Coliseum.
All of those things are true.
But it is also true that the Rebels played with a lot of heart on Thursday night. But what else would you expect out of a Rod Barnes-coached team?
In fact, this basketball team reminds me a lot of Barnes, a man I had the opportuntiy to watch play basketball when he was a high school star in the tiny Mississippi Delta town of Bentonia.
He played against bigger, stronger players with better bodies, better spring in their legs, who were much more talented.
But he never played against an opponent who wanted to win any more and would give more of an effort on the floor.
Quite frankly, the 2003-04 Ole Miss basketball team just didn't have all of the tools they needed.
The Rebels had one great player, Justin Reed, and another outstanding one in Aaron Harper. But that was it.
I wondered out loud before SEC play began if the Rebels would even win a league game. But somehow, some way, the Rebels won five of them all at the Tad Pad.
I should have known better. I forgot the Rod Barnes factor.
That won't happen again.