By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
NASHVILLE – There’s no more guessing about the NCAA tournament status of Ole Miss.
Another inspired senior performance and more of the same from Marshall Henderson saw to that, as the Rebels completed a three-game run through the SEC tournament with their first championship since 1981, their second overall, rallying to beat No. 13 Florida 66-63 before 12,138 fans at Bridgestone Arena on Sunday afternoon.
With the win comes the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, the Rebels’ first trip since 2002. They’ll play Wisconsin on Friday in Kansas City at 11:40 a.m.
As it happens, Ole Miss (26-8) completed the “getting in” part with its semifinal win over Vanderbilt. Sunday was about NCAA seeding.
More than that, it was about validation, a stamp of recognition on a conference season that began with six-straight wins before becoming yet another run to the bubble.
“This is obviously a big moment for our program,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “We knew this was possible if we stayed together and focused on the things we could control. I don’t think we played outstanding basketball today, yesterday or Friday, but we played determined basketball.”
The most determined Sunday was Murphy Holloway who led all scorers with 23 points on 11-for-14 shooting and had 10 rebounds to complete the double-double.
Holloway’s free throw with 8.6 seconds left gave the Rebels a three-point margin and forced the Gators into a 3-point situation for their final shot.
The Rebels didn’t let them get there as Nick Williams fouled Scotty Wilbekin in the open floor, a non-shooting situation.
Wilbekin missed the front end of a one-and-one. The Gators’ Kenny Boynton rebounded but was way off the mark on a 3-point shot.
A 54.4 percent free throw shooter, Holloway said he didn’t feel the pressure to make two.
He said, “Make one, just make one Murph,” rang out in his head. “We wanted to win this. We had a chip in our shoulder.”
Henderson, who was relegated along with Holloway to the All-SEC second team by league coaches, had 21 points and was named tournament MVP.
With both teams playing their third game in three days it was Florida, the regular season champ, that seemed to have fresher legs early, knocking down 7-of-14 3-point shots in the first half and taking a 38-26 lead.
The Gators (26-7) didn’t have long-distance staying power, though, and there was no consistency to be had by taking it straight at a focused and determined Reggie Buckner, who played 38 minutes and had three blocked shots while altering many others.
Ole Miss made its move early in the second half and tied the game at 43 on Henderson’s lob to Buckner then minutes later took its first lead on three Henderson free throws with 12 minutes, 16 seconds left.
The Ole Miss lead reached six in the second half with 11:15 to play.
Henderson said he was motivated by the All-SEC first-team snub.
“All the other coaches out here … they’re losers. They didn’t win this tournament, we did,” he said. “We went in with a chip on our shoulders. Maybe they’ll be smarter next year.”