COLUMBIA -- Murphy Holloway grew up rooting for South Carolina. That made it that much more difficult last year when he realized he would be playing college basketball elsewhere.
It also makes it that much more sweet for him to return to Columbia playing a key role for the team he chose, Ole Miss. Tonight, Holloway and the Rebels visit Colonial Life Arena, the place where the former Dutch Fork High School star dreamed of playing.
"That's a big thing for people back home," Holloway said. "You know, Irmo, nobody really makes it out. Nobody really makes it out to be successful. ... It motivates me."
There were a variety of reasons Holloway did not go to South Carolina -- none of them having to do with talent.
The 6-7 forward is the state's reigning Mr. Basketball. He was rated a top-100 recruit by Scout.com and ESPN/Scouts Inc. He is Dutch Fork's all-time leading scorer.
But plenty of big-time programs, including USC, Clemson and Louisville, passed on Holloway because of concerns he would not reach NCAA qualifying standards.
Even if he did, the staff of previous USC coach Dave Odom was worried whether Holloway would be admitted to USC. Twice in the previous two years, a prospect had been turned down by the school after reaching NCAA minimum standards.
Holloway had his own concerns -- about Odom's job status. When the coach announced his retirement, Holloway moved on. Darrin Horn was hired as USC's coach in early April, and he made a trip to Dutch Fork, according to Holloway. But the player stuck with his commitment to the Rebels.
"I thought Ole Miss was a good place," Holloway said. "I thought I had an opportunity to play (right away)."
But first he had to make the grade. That process lasted well into the summer, according to Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who decided Holloway was worth the risk.
"He's an outstanding talent. He had some academic issues that he had to overcome," Kennedy said. "But we felt confident in the direction that he was getting and the effort that he was putting forth."
Dion Bethea, who coached Holloway on the Carolina Ravens AAU team, credits guidance counselors and teachers at Dutch Fork for helping him.
"Dutch Fork didn't want to see him fail because they knew he had a lot of potential," Bethea said. "They really stepped up and helped him make it."
Holloway is rewarding Ole Miss' faith. He has started 11 of 18 games and is leading the Rebels in rebounds, averaging 5.7 per game, and has scored in double figures each of the past five games, increasing his average to 8.6 points.
His play has been one of the few bright spots for a young, injury-riddled team that lost point guard Chris Warren, a preseason All-SEC pick, for the season to a knee injury. As a result, Holloway has been asked to take a leadership role.
"He's a tremendous player, he's a great kid, he's got an infectious attitude," Kennedy said.
Holloway said he has heard that dozens of Dutch Fork students and teachers will be attending tonight's game. And he has talked with ex-Ravens Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick of USC.
"They're going to try and ruin my welcome back to South Carolina," Holloway said. "I'm just ready to come play."
OLE MISS (10-8, 1-3 SEC) AT SOUTH CAROLINA (13-4, 2-2)
• When: 8:05 p.m., today
• Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
• TV: FSN (cable channel 29 in Rock Hill)
• Radio: None
• Tickets: Available at arena
• USC's probable starters: F Dominique Archie 6-7 (11.1 ppg); F Mike Holmes 6-7 (11.2 ppg); C Sam Muldrow 6-9 (3.3 ppg); G Devan Downey 5-9 (19.6 ppg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 (16.2 ppg).
• Ole Miss probable starters: F Malcolm White 6-9 (5.4 ppg); F DeAundre Cranston 6-9 (3.0 ppg); G Terrico White 6-5 (9.4 ppg); G Zach Graham 6-6 (7.0 ppg); G David Huertas 6-5 (19.1 ppg).
• Notes: The Gamecocks will once again trot out their big starting lineup, according to coach Darrin Horn. Center Sam Muldrow will start his second game of the season, and Dominique Archie will shift down to small forward. ... Two of the SEC's top three scorers will be playing tonight, and USC's Downey and Ole Miss' Huertas could even guard each other. ... Ole Miss has a lot of size, even at the guard position. But that only became the plan after It didn't really plan it that way, losing guards Chris Warren, Eniel Polynice and Trevor Gaskins to season-ending injuries. Now the Rebels will depend on a combination of inside scoring and Huertas' shooting.