Now they are setting their sights on a Southeastern Conference tournament championship first.
Marshall Henderson scored 23 points as Mississippi beat Vanderbilt 64-52 Saturday in the SEC tournament semifinals, putting the Rebels into the title game for the first time since 2001.
“We know we made the NCAA tournament now,” Henderson said. “If we didn’t, that would the biggest snub ever ... We know we made it. We’re in the championship. We might as well win it and get us a fat ring.”
The third-seeded Rebels (25-8) came here needing wins to sharpen their postseason resume and finally reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. Now they will play No. 13 Florida, a 61-51 winner over Alabama, in Sunday’s championship game, where the winner advances to the NCAA tournament automatically.
Kennedy ticked off the Rebels’ record and 14 SEC wins, including four straight and two here in Nashville, while pointing out not many teams still are playing.
“So I feel pretty confident about our opportunity to get the albatross from around the neck for this program as it relates to the NCAA tournament,” Kennedy said.
Senior Reginald Buckner also had 15 points, and senior Murphy Holloway added 12 for Ole Miss. The Rebels now have won six of seven overall.
“There’s very few times in your life that you have a chance to compete for a championship, so that’s where I want their focus to be,” Kennedy said. “I want them to play free and loose and understanding that on Sunday that we have the makings of a party. But on Saturday, you have a chance to do something special that no one can take away from you the rest of your life.”
No. 10 seeded Vanderbilt (16-17), the defending tournament champion, lost for only the second time in eight games. Kedren Johnson had a team-high 12 points.
Kennedy, the Rebels’ winningest coach, has at least 20 victories in four straight seasons and became the fifth SEC coach to win 20 in six of his first seven seasons. But another missed NCAA tournament could have jeopardized his job security.
Vandy coach Kevin Stallings immediately congratulated Kennedy.
“I’m not a bracketology fan, but I would assume that they’re safely in the NCAA tournament,” Stallings said. “And they should be, in my opinion.”
The Rebels played without point guard Jarvis Summers, who hit his head hard in Friday night’s win against Missouri. He is day-to-day with a concussion. Not that they needed Summers as they wore down Vanderbilt, with the Commodores playing their third game in as many days along with going to class the past two days.
“We had two or three guys that were just a quart low on energy,” Stallings said. “It wasn’t because they wanted to be. It wasn’t because they chose to be. They just didn’t have the same kind of pep in their step that they’d had in days past.”
Ole Miss outshot Vandy 44 percent (22 of 50) to 33.9 percent (19 of 56) as the Commodores went a chilly 6 of 30 behind the arc. The Rebels also finished with a 41-36 edge on the boards.
Ole Miss didn’t grab its first lead until the opening minute of the second half, but the Rebels took control with a 15-2 run a few minutes later.
“We started off kind of slow,” Buckner said. “We kind of had a sense of urgency in the second half that they would get kind of tired and we would take advantage of it.”
Vanderbilt was up 34-30 off a fast-break layup by Dai-Jon Parker with 15:13 remaining. Then Henderson got the Rebels going with a 3. He added another jumper for the fourth and final tie at 36. Buckner then scored on a three-point play. By the time Buckner hit two free throws with 9:10 left, Ole Miss had its biggest lead yet at 45-36.
Ole Miss led by as much as 58-40 on a dunk by Buckner with 3:20 to go. Vandy, which averaged 10 made 3-pointers in winning its first two tournament games, missed its first 10 to start the second half. Johnson hit the 11th with 2:07 left to cap a quick seven points for the Commodores, except it was too late.
“It might have had something to do with us not shooting the ball as good as we’re used to shooting it,” Johnson said of playing three games in three days.
This was a big change from Jan. 15 in the only previous game between these teams this season.
Vandy hit a Memorial Gym record 17 3-pointers in a game Ole Miss pulled out 89-79 after Henderson beat the buzzer with a 35-footer to force overtime. The Commodores blew the win by not even defending Henderson in the final seconds of regulation in that game, their third loss to open league play.
Vandy led 23-14 with 7:09 left on a free throw by Johnson.
Henderson, the SEC’s leading scorer, missed his first five shots before finally scoring on a layup with 4:29 to go. He also added a jumper and then his first 3-pointer as the Rebels finished the half on a 12-3 run to tie it up for the first time at 26.
FLORIDA VS. ALABAMA
Florida finally showed it can win a close game. All it takes is for senior guard Kenny Boynton to answer his coach’s challenge.
Held scoreless for the first 25 minutes, Boynton had 11 straight points during a critical 15-0 run Saturday as No. 13 Florida erased a 10-point, second-half deficit to beat Alabama 61-51 in a Southeastern Conference semifinal.
Boynton said he benefited from Gators coach Billy Donovan’s halftime message to him. The senior guard’s second-half surge helped Florida end its season-long frustration in close games.
“He challenged me to come out and play with confidence,” Boynton said. “Honestly he did challenge me, and I think I tried to step up to it.”
The top-seeded Gators (26-6) advanced to the championship game Sunday against No. 3 seed Mississippi (25-8), which defeated Vanderbilt 64-52 in the other semifinal. Alabama (21-12), the tournament’s No. 4 seed, will spend Sunday waiting to learn its fate from the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Most mock brackets had Alabama on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble at the start of the week. Alabama went 12-6 in conference play during the regular season but hurt its cause by going 1-5 in December, including home nonconference losses to Mercer and Tulane.
“I’ll just go to sleep, wake up tomorrow and see what they choose,” Alabama guard Trevor Lacey said. “Whatever they choose, we go from there.”
Boynton scored all 16 of his points during a 7-minute span. Patric Young had 13 points and nine rebounds for the Gators. Mike Rosario added 10 points. Trevor Releford scored 12 points, and Nick Jacobs and Lacey each added 11 for Alabama.
Alabama led 37-27 with 16:05 remaining before Florida reeled off 15 straight points over the next 5 minutes.
In the lone regular-season meeting between the two teams, Florida rallied from eight points down in the final 12½ minutes to win 64-52 on March 2 in Gainesville.
That 64-52 result represented Florida’s narrowest margin of victory all season before Saturday. The Gators entered Saturday leading the nation in scoring margin (plus-18.9), but they’re 0-5 in games decided by six points or fewer.
“We know that to win out games in the NCAA tournament, games are going to be close, so we have to consistently close out games,” Boynton said.
This game featured the SEC’s two best scoring defenses, with Florida (53.4) and Alabama (58.9) allowing fewer than 60 points per game. And it started out as a defensive struggle. Seven minutes into the game, Florida led 6-2.
But after missing four of its first five shots and committing four turnovers in the first 5½ minutes, Alabama’s offense found a rhythm. The Crimson Tide shot 55 percent (11 of 20) in the first half against a Florida team that hadn’t allowed anyone to shoot 50 percent or better this season.
The Tide stayed hot early in the second half and extended its lead to 37-27 when Releford sank two free throws with 16:05 remaining.
“We were playing good defense,” Young said. “They were knocking down some tough twos, some tough threes. But we knew they can’t hold that up the whole (game) because they haven’t been doing that the whole year. It’s been tough for them to score in the halfcourt the whole season.”
That’s when Boynton took over the game.
Boynton entered the day shooting just 38.9 percent, making him a subject of criticism for much of his senior season. Boynton shot 1 of 7 and scored two points Friday in an SEC quarterfinal victory over LSU, but he didn’t get down on himself and maintained the support of his teammates.
“Our team loves Kenny Boynton,” Donovan said. “When people watch and the ball doesn’t go in the basket, it’s very, very easy to point fingers and be critical. But I would say that maybe of anybody on our team, Kenny Boynton is truly loved inside of our team. He’s a great teammate. He does want to win. He wants to make every shot he takes. He doesn’t intentionally try to miss. But he’s gone through a little bit of a tough shooting period.”
That tough period might have ended Saturday.
First, the senior guard made a pair of free throws to cut Alabama’s lead to 37-31. Next, he made a driving basket. Then, Boynton sank a 3-pointer. He followed that up with a fast-break layup that gave Florida the lead. Boynton closed this stunning flurry by going into the paint and making a shot off the glass that extended Florida’s advantage to 40-37 with 12:02 remaining.
“My teammates found me in transition,” Boynton said. “Basically, I didn’t get more aggressive or anything. The floor just opened up more.”
Boynton added a basket that put Florida ahead 47-40 with 9:40 left and a 3-pointer that made 50-42 with 8:11 remaining. Alabama wouldn’t cut the margin below four points the rest of the way.
“This was a grind-it-out game,” Rosario said. “This was a 40-minute game. Guys knew Kenny needed to step up for us in the second half. I felt he took on that challenge. When that run happened, it just fed off positive energy to all (his) teammates. I felt everyone on the team embraced that.”