By The Associated Press
NASHVILLE — The Mississippi Rebels can breathe much easier on the edge of coach Andy Kennedy’s first NCAA tournament berth in his seventh season.
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.
Read more on this game and Rebel basketball in Sunday’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.