HATTIESBURG — The baseball skied toward Tim Elko as if magnetically drawn, reaching its zenith high above the first baseman’s glove to the foul side of the first-base line.
Of course it was Elko who was given the chance to record one more unforgettable moment for the Ole Miss baseball team. The fifth-year senior who returned to chase championship dreams. The man who tore his ACL and played anyway. The man who powered the Rebels through the postseason with hit after hit.
“The guy who came back to go to Omaha,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “How fitting.”
The baseball dropped into Elko’s glove. Immediately, he sprinted toward the mound to celebrate.
Ole Miss, at last, was Omaha bound.
The Rebels (37-22) pitched their second straight shutout of No. 11 Southern Miss (47-19), taking down the Golden Eagles 5-0 on Sunday to clinch their first trip to the men’s College World Series since 2014.
“I’m speechless right now,” senior Justin Bench said. “I’m just so proud of this team.”
And they did it despite Elko taking a back seat at the plate. After going 9 for 14 in three regional games and Saturday’s 10-0 Ole Miss win, the slugger went 0 for 4 in Sunday’s clincher.
But he still made an impact in the field, snaring a Gabe Montenegro line drive to end the second inning and strand a runner at third base in a scoreless game.
It was the signature play behind left-hander Hunter Elliott, who tossed a gem for the Rebels and pitched into the eighth inning. Elliott allowed just three hits, did not walk a batter and struck out 10.
The freshman from Tupelo had not gone more than seven innings all season and topped six innings just three times, but he came through Sunday when Ole Miss sorely needed him.
“He’s had a lot of really good games for us but none better than this,” Bianco said. “He was lights out today.”
Josh Mallitz put out the fire when Elliott faltered in the eighth, allowing two singles and recording just one out. After a strikeout and a two-out walk, Mallitz got Carson Paetow to pop out to shallow left field to end the Golden Eagles’ best threat.
TJ McCants homered in the eighth to add a run for Ole Miss and make it a 5-0 game before Mallitz hurled a 1-2-3 ninth to finish things out.
In just two days, Southern Miss’ historic season had come to an end.
The Golden Eagles won 47 games, claimed the Conference USA regular-season title and beat LSU twice to win the Hattiesburg Regional.
But their offense couldn’t get things done all weekend. Ole Miss held USM to just seven hits and no runs across both games.
“We just didn’t finish down the stretch like we needed to,” Berry said. “We got shut out for 18 innings. You’re not going to win doing that.”
Ole Miss, meanwhile, needed to win its fifth consecutive game. The Rebels swept through the Coral Gables Regional and carried their momentum into Super Regionals.
And they got some help.
Ole Miss scored its first run in the fifth inning against starter Tanner Hall on an infield chopper that first baseman Christopher Sargent lost in the sun for an infield single. A passed ball scored a second run before Kevin Graham added a third on a single into right field.
Bench added an RBI single off reliever Dalton Rogers in the sixth inning before McCants, in his first at-bat of the Super Regional, rocked a pitch from Landon Harper over the right-field wall.
In the ninth, Mallitz retired Southern Miss’ Nos. 2-4 hitters in order. Dustin Dickerson grounded to shortstop. Danny Lynch hit a ground ball to first that Elko tracked down and flipped to Mallitz at the bag.
And Christopher Sargent skied the 3-1 pitch into the air, where Tim Elko was waiting.
Then he wasn’t waiting anymore.
Neither were the Rebels, who will make just their second trip to Omaha since 1972. Ole Miss will play either Auburn or Oregon State in their first CWS game Saturday.
A team that struggled through much of Southeastern Conference play will now compete for its first baseball championship. Ole Miss won just a third of its first 21 SEC games, falling to the bottom of the conference standings.
“This team was 7-14 and in a place that we’ve never been in 22 years,” said Bianco, who took over in 2001. “We’ve only been to Omaha twice, but we had never been 7-14 in our league.”
But Ole Miss — ranked No. 1 in the country less than three months ago — came roaring back. The Rebels swept Missouri in Oxford. They went to Baton Rouge and swept LSU. After a series loss to Texas A&M, they lost their first SEC tournament game to Vanderbilt.
But they weren’t done.
Ole Miss snuck into the NCAA tournament field with an at-large bid and quickly proved it belonged. The Rebels beat Arizona 7-4, squeaked past Miami 2-1 and throttled the Wildcats 22-6 to book a trip to Hattiesburg.
After wrapping up an 8-7 win over LSU, Berry and the Golden Eagles knew Mississippi — no matter the outcome — would be represented in Omaha for the fourth straight CWS. Mississippi State made trips in 2018 and 2019 before bringing home its first title in 2021.
Berry thought he and a standout Southern Miss team would be next. But after the Golden Eagles’ season ended on their own home field, he went up to Bianco with one final message.
“If it couldn’t have been us,” Berry told his friend and fellow coach, I wanted it to be you.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.