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The Red Cup Chronicles: 1997 Ole Miss basketball proves it’s not a fluke, goes on crazy home winning streak

If the Tad Pad could talk.

Rogelio Solis - AP Images

Sup, haters?! It’s the beginning of a new week and we’re back at it again with another addition of The Red Cup Chronicles.

Our most recent time travel trip brought us to Omaha for a celebration of home runs and America, we’ve seen what happens when Archie Manning gets angry, traced the history of drinking away the Egg Bowl, got cheated out of a bowl win on Pearl of the Antilles, and dominated Southwest Baptist.

This tale moves us to the hardwood and will showcase a familiar face. Bon Voyage!

Where are we going?

Hidden behind the trees off of Chucky Mullins Drive to southwest of the center of campus in Oxford, Miss. lies a barren facility that resembles something of a mix between a zeppelin, a hub cap and a manufacturing plant. To the common eye, it is an eye sore. To those who know it well, it is a beautifully-crafted coliseum named after C. M. “Tad” Smith that forever holds a place near and dear to our hearts.

The Tad Pad, as it is more commonly known, opened in 1966 as Rebel Coliseum. It was later renamed on March 25, 1972, to honor Smith, a former three-sport letterman, coach, and athletic director at the university. The 8,867-seat arena hosted concerts including Widespread Panic and The Allman Brothers in 1995, holds graduations each May, and was the home of Ole Miss men’s and women’s basketball until the 2015-16 season.

The building was constructed similar to many facilities of the time period, with a neoprene-covered roof that reaches 272-feet in diameter and a 130-foot floor with red and blue trim located 12 feet below ground level. The stadium received overhauls in 2001 when the seats replaced with navy upholster, and again in 2010 when the video display was upgraded and the sound system received a boost. Overhauls may be a loose term?

Preservation in Mississippi

To the right, in the only bleacher section of the stands, sat/stood Club Red. The Ole Miss basketball faithful packed the student section and showed out for Johnny Neumann, John Stroud, Carol Ross, Jennifer Gillom, Marshall Henderson, Justin Reed, Murphy Holloway, Yolanda Moore, Armintie Price, Terrico White and many other Rebel ballers.

By the end of the Tad Pad’s tenure, squirrels were rampant in the locker room, power outages were frequent, and the view from certain seats had zero visibility because of the giant structural beam in front of them. It was full of character and stories that stand the test of time. It was and is a beautiful piece of art.

When the Pavillion finished construction in 2016 and the Rebels moved into their new home, the Tad Pad was retired and became an artifact that should be forever cherished.

What brings us there?

The 1996-97 Ole Miss basketball team was ready to take the next step after returning eight rising sophomore and junior players from its 12-win season the year before. Leading the pack for fifth-year head coach Rob Evans was future NBA forward Ansu Sesay, who received All-SEC honors that year. His supporting cast consisted of forward Jason Smith, guard Joezon Darby and guard Keith Carter. Yes, the same athletic director Keith Carter who hired Lane Kiffin in 2019. He is a baller on the court and as an administrator.

Getty Images

Ole Miss began the ‘96-97 season 10-3 with losses to Alabama, No. 14 New Mexico and Davidson, and wins over Wichita State and No. 22 Arkansas. Sesay and co. were starting to catch some eyes around the nation, but took an embarrassing home loss to the Tide a week before hosting head coach Rick Pitino and the No. 3 Kentucky Wildcats on January, 11, 1997.

This is where our time machine comes to a screeching halt.

The unranked Rebels, wearing their red uniforms for the first time that season, took the court in front of 8,195 at the Tad Pad with Dick Vitale on the call for a national audience on ABC. Before the game, Evans told his team, “after you’ve won the game, I want you to tell the press this is not a fluke. You’re for real.”

Rogelio Solis - AP Images

Ole Miss, which shot a season-low 32 percent in the loss to Alabama three days earlier, shot 46 percent from the field in the first half, including 7-of-13 from 3-point range, and went into the harrowed locker rooms deep within the Tad Pad up 36-33 at halftime. The upset was in reach, but anyone who knows anything about the University of Mississippi athletics knows that no lead is safe. Ever.

To open the second half, Sesay hit a big triple and point guard Chris Oney knocked down a pull-up jumper on a fastbreak to push the lead to 48-35 with a 12-2 run. Kentucky battled back to 53-50, but Ole Miss wasn’t done yet and answered with a 13-6 run.

As is tradition, the Rebels nearly blew it and made just a single bucket under six minutes. Six minutes, one basket. Ugh.

Fortunately, the game came down to free throws. The Rebels hit 5-of-7 down the stretch and Darby knocked down the game-winners. He was hoisted above the shoulders of Club Red, who stormed the court when the clock hit zero and Ole Miss upset the No. 3 team in the country 73-69.

It was not a fluke.

The 1996-97 squad won eight of 12 games to end the season at 20-9 and received the school’s second NCAA Tournament birth. More impressively, perhaps, Ole Miss won 29-straight home games in front of Club Red. All good things must come to an end, but the Rebels did not lose in Oxford until January 13, 1999, over a year after taking down Pitino and the Wildcats. Pretty wild.

Thank you for coming along on this Monday edition of The Red Cup Chronicles, and here’s to the 2020 Rebels going on its own 29-game home winning streak. If Evans, Sesay and Carter can do it, who’s to say Kermit, Joiner and Romello can’t?