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OXFORD — Tim Elko (AKA, the legend) did it again. And again. The big dude with one fewer ACLs than most every human being needs to compete launched two more towering home runs, including another grand slam. He scored three runs, knocked in five runs and lifted his Ole Miss Rebels to a 12-9 slugfest victory over Southern Miss Monday.
The win sends Ole Miss to next weekend’s Super Regional round of the NCAA tournament.
“The legend continues,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco. “Holy cow. It’s legendary. What looked like it could be a tragedy (when Elko suffered a torn ACL in his right knee) in April has turned into one of the biggest legends that will be talked about around here for decades.”
Yes, and people will be talking about the last two games of the Oxford Regional for years as well. Two in-state rivals, who because of COVID did not meet during the regular season, played two epic games.
After coming back from a 4-0 deficit to defeat Ole Miss 10-7 Sunday night, the pitching-depleted Golden Eagles fell behind 9-0 in the second inning Monday. They fought back to make a serious game of it and keep Ole Miss faithful on the edge of their seats. Consider this: Southern Miss hit six home runs Monday. And lost.
They lost because of Elko’s heroics. They lost because All-American Doug Nikhazy came back to pitch in relief after only two days of rest to get the biggest out of the game with a bases-loaded strikeout in the sixth inning. And the Eagles lost because Ole Miss closer Taylor Broadway came on to finally silence their bats with a two-inning save.
Sound familiar? Elko, Nikhazy and Broadway have been the three most crucial elements in this 44-20 Ole Miss season. All three are at their best when it matters most — and it never mattered more than Monday.
Elko was voted the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, and Nikhazy and Broadway were the two pitchers selected for the all-tournament team. But this will tell you much about this Oxford Regional: The 12-player all-tourney team consisted six Rebels and six Golden Eagles. They were that evenly matched.
Consider, again: Southern Miss switch-hitting centerfielder Reed Trimble, in four regional games, hit safely in 14 of 25 at bats, slammed three home runs and two doubles, scored eight runs and drove in 14 more.
Said Southern Miss coach Scott Berry of Trimble: “He’s probably going to play in the big leagues some day. He’s a five-tool guy, an electric ball player.”
There was a lot of gushing by both coaches in post-game media sessions — about their own teams and their opponents.
USM’s Scott Berry on Ole Miss: “They are such a high quality club. They play with so much energy.”
Bianco on the Golden Eagles: “Congratulations to Southern Miss. What a tremendous season, tremendous team. … This wasn’t easy.”
There were so many heroic efforts in the error-less finale. Pitchers on both teams — Nikhazy and Derek Diamond for Ole Miss and Hunter Stanley and Walker Powell for Southern Miss— valiantly pitched on short rest. Jack Dougherty, normally a reliever, gave the Rebels four solid innings to begin the game. Stanley and Powell, two senior starters, covered a combined five innings or the game might still be going.
Besides Trimble, Reece Ewing, Danny Lynch, Will McGillis and Blake Johnson all homered for Southern Miss. McGillis homered in each of USM’s four tournament games. Besides Elko, Peyton Chatagnier, Justin Bench and Calvin Harris all hit homers for the Rebels.
Southern Miss finishes 40-21 with plenty promise for the future. Ole Miss advances at 44-20, and keep in mind that the Rebels lost their Friday night starter Gunner Hoglund in early May. They lost Max Cioffi, who was going to be a key bullpen ingredient, in the first two weeks of the season. They were without the legend (Elko) while the swelling in his wrecked knee subsided.
“Every time we faced adversity this season, we have bounced back,” Elko said. “That’s a good trait.”
Bouncing back is a fine trait for anyone who competes. And it is a trait both Mississippi teams showed a lot of in this Oxford Regional. It takes one terrific college baseball team to win an NCAA Regional. It takes two to make it memorable.