The Rebels watched Vanderbilt hit four of its first 10 3-pointers and take an early lead, but the Commodores were gassed late, hitting only two of their final 20 attempts.
Ole Miss got inspired play from seniors Reggie Buckner and Murphy Holloway – the Rebels’ advantage inside to Vanderbilt’s perimeter driven-offense – and won 64-52 before 14,574 fans at Bridgestone Arena.
Ole Miss (25-8) advances to its first SEC Tournament championship game since playing Kentucky here in 2001.
The Rebels take on Florida at noon on ABC.
The winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAAs, but the Rebels were breathing a sigh of relief late Saturday afternoon.
“We knew after the Mississippi State debacle that we had hurt ourselves,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “But at 25-8 and now having won 14 SEC games I feel pretty confident that we’ve been able to get that albatross from around our neck as it relates to the NCAA tournament.”
The Rebels last played in the NCAAs in 2002.
After defeating Missouri 64-62 in the SEC quarterfinals late Friday, there were mixed opinions from the “bracketologists” regarding the Rebels’ future. Several called the Vanderbilt game a must-win for Ole Miss.
“We’ve done enough. They can’t keep a 25-win team, second place in the SEC and in the (conference) tournament out of the tournament,” said Marshall Henderson, who led all scorers with 23 points, his second 20-plus game here.
Before gaining that confidence the Rebels had to handle Vanderbilt (16-17).
The Commodores hit 17 3-point shots when Ole Miss won at Memorial Gym earlier this year. They were playing their third game in three days.
Kennedy wanted Vanderbilt to fire it up as often as it could.
“That’s why I played so much zone (defense),” he said. “We wanted to keep them out of the paint. Jump shots usually go when the legs go.”
Ole Miss erased a nine-point first-half deficit to rally to a 26-all tie at halftime.
When the jump shots went Vanderbilt fell behind by 18 in the second half.
It was then that Buckner seemed to be near every big play. He finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, Holloway adding 12 and eight.
Ole Miss also left the door open by missing free throws down the stretch. Ultimately they got the ball in Henderson’s hands, and Vanderbilt spent 17 seconds before finally deciding to foul the SEC’s free throw leader.
Holloway said he worked to motivate Buckner.
“I told him if we lose, we go back home, go back to school and ain’t got no love,” he said. “Then we’ve gone to college four years – me five – and hadn’t accomplished anything.”