Ole Miss is back where its resurgence began – Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
The No. 3 seed Rebels (35-22) play No. 1 seed Southern Mississippi (47-17) in a best-of-three NCAA Super Regional at 4 p.m. eastern Saturday on ESPNU with game two following at 4 p.m. on Sunday on ESPNU or ESPN2. A third game – if necessary – will be Monday at a time to be announced.
Winner advances to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, next week.
On May 11, the Rebels were mired near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference standings at 10-14 and out of the polls at 26-19 overall after being ranked No. 1 at 15-4 and 2-1 in the SEC less than two months previously. But that night, Ole Miss won 4-1 at No. 11 Southern Miss.
The Rebels had just swept three games at home against Missouri, but Mizzou was floundering at 7-17 in the SEC and finished 13th out of 14 teams in the league at 10-20. USM was the first ranked team Ole Miss beat all season after seven straight losses against ranked foes.
Three more victories over a ranked team would follow as the Rebels swept a series at No. 9 LSU to complete a 7-0 run to get them back in contention for an NCAA bid at 31-19 and 13-14 in the SEC. Ole Miss would finish the regular season on an 8-2 run that helped erase a one-and-done appearance in the SEC Tournament as the Rebels received the last of 33 at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament.
Then they upset No. 1 seed and host Miami along with No. 2 seed Arizona to reach Hattiesburg.
“It’s a bunch of things, and we all wish we knew,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said.
One in particular is the rejuvenated play of senior left fielder Kevin Graham, who fractured his wrist in a collision at Central Florida on March 5. Graham returned to the lineup on April 8, but did not return to his normal self until only recently and is hitting .338 with 43 RBIs and 10 home runs. When fully healthy in 2021, he hit .342 with 56 RBIs and 14 home runs.
“That’s a major piece of the offense who was gone while we weren’t playing well,” Bianco said. “You’re talking about a guy who couldn’t swing right for weeks when he came back. He had to get his timing back and his feel and his hands to feel normal. He’s played really well the last month.”
Bianco kept Graham’s slow return to his batting motion quiet.
“We try as coaches not to publicize a lot of that during the season because it doesn’t matter,” he said. “All it is is excuses. We have to win anyway. But Graham coming back to his best was a huge piece.”
Senior first baseman Tim Elko has been among the SEC leaders in RBIs with 68 and in home runs with 22.
Bianco also settled on his starting rotation as the season went on with junior right-hander Dylan DeLucia (5-2, 4.68 ERA, 79 strikeouts, 24 walks, 73 innings) as the No. 1 starter, followed by freshman left-hander Hunter Elliott (3-3, 3.17 ERA, 82 strikeouts, 30 walks, 59 and two-thirds innings) and junior right-hander Derek Diamond (4-4, 6.89 ERA, 57 strikeouts, 13 walks, 65 and a third innings).
“We started pitching better,” Bianco said. “We didn’t get instant results, but at least they were giving us opportunities to win. Then the pitching has kind of played out. We figured out who the best guys were, what their roles were.”
Senior right-hander Brandon Johnson (1-3, 4.08 ERA, 66 strikeouts, 21 walks, 39 and two-thirds innings) has developed into one of the SEC’s best closers with 11 saves. Ole Miss’ bullpen allowed no earned runs in the NCAA Regional in Coral Gables, Florida.
DeLucia will oppose USM sophomore right-hander Hurston Waldrep (6-1, 2.97 ERA) on Saturday. Elliott will face sophomore right-hander Tanner Hall (9-2, 2.61 ERA) in the Sunday game. Senior right-hander Hunter Riggins (8-4, 2.59 ERA) will start for USM should there be a game Monday against a starter to be named by Ole Miss.
Ole Miss’ offense will have to get by one of the nation’s best pitching staffs. USM is No. 2 in the nation in earned run average at 3.17 with Tennessee No. 1 at 2.47 entering Super Regional play. The Rebels are No. 19 in the nation in home runs per game with 1.72 and have 100 on the season. USM is No. 65 in home runs per game at 1.28 a game with 82 on the year.
Elko is ready for the USM pitchers.
“We just have a full belief in ourselves,” he said. “This is no surprse to us that we made it this far. We knew the whole season that we had a great team. We never doubted ourselves.”