By DAVID BRANDT/AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins has a philosophy on 3-point shooting that doesn’t require much of a conscience.
It does require confidence. And the Commodores’ most prolific long-range bomber isn’t lacking it, which is the main reason Vanderbilt rallied to beat Mississippi 65-53 and advance to the program’s first Southeastern Conference tournament final in more than 60 years.
“I’m not going to just stop shooting when I’m missing shots,” Jenkins said. “I’m a shooter, and the team needs me to make shots, so that’s what I did the second half.”
Jenkins scored 23 points — including 13 in the second half — to push past a feisty Ole Miss team that had beaten Auburn and Tennessee over the previous two days.
It’s the first trip to the SEC championship game for Vanderbilt (23-10) since 1951, when the Commodores beat Kentucky 61-57. They’ve finally got another chance at a title thanks to timely outside shooting from Jenkins and Brad Tinsley, who combined to hit five 3-pointers in the second half.
After a cold first half, Vanderbilt hit 50 percent (6 of 12) from 3-point range in the second half.
Vanderbilt outrebounded Ole Miss 36-29. Lance Goulbourne added 10 points and 12 rebounds for the Commodores, who will play top-ranked Kentucky on Sunday.
Ole Miss (20-13) briefly took a 32-31 lead early in the second half, but Vanderbilt eventually buried the Rebels with 3-pointers and relentless defense.
“A couple of key things didn’t go our way,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “Our inability to string together consecutive offensive possessions has been an Achilles heel all year … And our inability to find John Jenkins — what a terrific shooter — he single-handedly put them in the championship game with his shooting and the timeliness of it. He made us pay time and time again.”
The Rebels were led by Jarvis Summers, who scored 15 points. LaDarius White added 13.
Ole Miss had the pace it wanted from the opening tip — a deliberate, half-court game that kept it close.
The Rebels have been a difficult matchup for teams all season despite having serious deficiencies on the offensive end, making up for it with defense, rebounding and sheer hustle. It allowed them to get past Auburn and Tennessee in the first two rounds, but even Kennedy has admitted the energy expended on a nightly basis makes it very difficult to win consistently.
Neither team shot well in the first half, but Jenkins hit a pair of late baskets after a cold start to push Vanderbilt ahead 25-23.
Ole Miss took a brief 32-31 lead on Holloway’s free throw with 16:12 remaining, but it appeared the Rebels simply ran out of their usual boundless energy. They failed to close on shooters like Jenkins, who hit a pair of crucial shots from beyond that arc, including one that put Vanderbilt in front 49-40 with less than nine minutes remaining.
Ole Miss made one last run, pulling within 49-44 with 7:24 remaining, but then it was Tinsley’s turn to hit a few big 3-pointers, and Vanderbilt went on an 8-0 run to put the game away. Tinsley finished with 12 points.
“Our belief is eventually we’ll make some shots against you,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “And then John made some and Brad made some … We finally got those guys loose for some good looks.”
The Rebels do have some hope for an NCAA tournament at-large bid, though they appear to be a longshot. Kennedy has not been to the tournament in any of his first five seasons and the program hasn’t qualified since 2002, which is the longest drought in the SEC.
Vanderbilt definitely has a spot in the NCAA tournament, but first there’s the task of trying to beat Kentucky, which edged Florida 74-71 in the first game on Saturday. The Commodores have played the Wildcats close twice this season, losing 69-63 at home and 83-74 on the road.
“We’ll have a tough game in every respect,” Stallings said. “It’s tough on offense, tough on defense and it’s tough on the boards. It’s tough in every way when you face Kentucky.”
Read more in Sunday’s NEMS Daily Journal.