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COLUMN: Helpless night doesn’t dampen Moody’s prowess

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Stefan Moody had no idea at first. Then it hit him.

After committing his fifth and final foul, Ole Miss’ senior guard put his hands on his knees and dropped his head as he waited to come out with 30 seconds left. You could say Moody was finally taking a moment to catch his breath after running all over the place in Ole Miss’ loss to Alabama on Thursday in the Southeastern Conference tournament, but that would be an insult to Moody’s competitiveness.

But after doing everything he possibly could to single-handedly keep the Rebels closer than they deserved to be, the player head coach Andy Kennedy consistently refers to as the most dynamic player he’s ever coached and argues has ever put on an Ole Miss uniform had no reason to hang his head.

Those in attendance let him know it.

The thousands of fans taking in Moody’s 39-point performance at Bridgestone Arena rose to their feet in unison when they realized his night was over, too. Most of them clad in Kentucky blue — this is college basketball in March after all — they gave Moody a standing ovation as he walked off the floor.

“I didn’t even know I fouled out,” Moody said afterward. “I was trying to stay on the court, but I guess it’s a good feeling. But I’m still consumed by the fact that we lost. I like winning.”

Even the opposing coach, Alabama’s Avery Johnson, had to acknowledge what he had just witnessed from Moody — getting shot after shot after shot to fall with defenders draped all over him while his teammates offered little assistance. As Moody started walking toward his bench, Johnson stopped him, extended his hand for a shake and embraced the Rebels’ star player with relief.

“The first thing I said was great game,” Johnson said. “You’re just a joy to watch. You play the game the right way. You’re a fierce competitor. But what I wanted to say was I’m glad that I don’t have to coach against you any more in this SEC tournament.”

Same goes for every other team still playing in Nashville.

Moody is the type of talent that can carry a team to magical heights this time of a year, and he showed why against the Crimson Tide. It didn’t make a lot of sense that Ole Miss was even in the game seeing how Alabama went bonkers from 3-point range (12 of 24) and no other Ole Miss player reached double figures until Tomasz Gielo hit a meaningless jumper with 33 seconds left.

There were times Moody looked as if he wasn’t even thinking about passing, and rightfully so. Off-balance 3-pointers. Fadeaway 3s. Hanging floaters. Contested layups. You name it, and the SEC’s leading scorer was usually hitting it to keep Ole Miss close despite actually finishing with more turnovers (3) than assists (2) because his teammates combined to make just 14 of their 40 shots.

But if you’ve kept up with Ole Miss basketball the last two seasons, Thursday was nothing new.

Moody came in from junior college with the pressure of having to take over the scoring load from Marshall Henderson and has carried the Rebels ever since. Using his unique combination of speed and athleticism to constantly produce against players who are usually always bigger than him, the 5-foot-9 Moody needed just 52 games to reach 1,000 career points, helped Ole Miss notch back-to-back 20-win seasons and has been part of an NCAA tournament.

Ole Miss won’t get there this year and may not even play in the NIT. If the Rebels do, Moody has a chance — he needs 17 assists — to join the late, great Pete Maravich as the only two players in league history to finish with 700 points and 150 assists in a season.

But if Thursday was it for Moody, it was a fitting way to go out.