Fitting End

Their likeness was on display in the stands. A number of fans were sporting Chris Warren beards. Blown up pictures of Warren and fellow senior Zach Graham's faces lined the student section. Saturday, as it was supposed to be, was a day for two of the best players in program history.

Warren and Graham had a conversation before Ole Miss tipped off with Arkansas. They exchanged pleasantries, recounted memorable moments over the last four years of playing together. But it wasn't a time for goodbyes. There was a basketball game left to be played, possibly their last inside Tad Smith Coliseum.

"We basically just said we wanted to win this game and go into the (SEC) tournament and win some ball games. Let's make a run," Graham said.

Step one accomplished. Ole Miss (19-12, 7-9 SEC) held off a fierce Arkansas push early in the second half, to grind out an 84-74 win. Fittingly, Warren and Graham led the charge. Warren had 24 points and nine assists. Graham was 5 of 6 in his 3-pointers, scoring 15 points.

Graham scored all of his 15 points from beyond the arc in the win
Courtesy: Bruce Newman
With the win, Ole Miss claimed the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament set for March 10-13. The Rebels will meet South Carolina Thursday at 2:15 p.m. in Atlanta.

"A lot of times, you get what you earn. They earned that," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. "It would have been a shame for them to have not played well, and for us to have not left with a victory. Those kids have meant a lot to this program.

"It was a fitting end for them."

Kennedy sent in subs for Warren and Graham with 43 seconds left. The game was well in hand, Ole Miss up by 12. As their names rang through the loudspeakers overhead, some 8,000 fans in attendance rose to their collective feet.

They applauded. They roared. It was a moment befitting two accomplished players.

"It was fun. That's a good way to go out," Graham said. "I've enjoyed playing here for four years. It felt good to go out like that. It was fun."

"Our team played for us," Warren said. "We came out with energy. You want to play the best that you can in your last game."

Warren and Graham sparked a first-half surge that saw the Rebels take a commanding, 41-26 advantage with 4:23 to go. However, shades of Wednesday's loss at Auburn, Ole Miss quickly lost its double-digit margin. Arkansas closed to within six -- 43-37 -- by halftime. The Razorbacks had reeled off an 11-2 run, and scored the final seven points of the half.

Arkansas only trailed by one midway through the second half. But this was senior day -- the final game for Warren and Graham, players deserving of a final victory at home.

So the Rebels rallied around their seniors. They scored 21 points to only six for Arkansas over a four-minute period, and finished off the season sweep of Arkansas handily. They tied a school record for made 3-pointers with 14. They were good on 55 percent of their field-goal attempts. Four Rebels scored at least 10 points.

Ole Miss outrebounded Arkansas, 33-30, had 20 assists and 11 blocks, including a whopping seven from Reginald Buckner. Buckner has fouled out seven times this season. Today, he played 31 minutes and didn't pick up his first personal foul until late in the second half. He scored nine points and grabbed eight rebounds to round out his stat sheet.

Warren was 8 of 16 from the floor
Courtesy: Bruce Newman
"When the moon's right and he plays like that, we're pretty good," Kennedy said of Buckner. "Trust me, I wish I could figure out how to bottle it, but I can't. When he's on top of his game, we've talked about it ad nauseum all year, we've shown we're capable any night. We've been inconsistent at times."

Rotnei Clarke had 26 points to pace three Razorbacks in double-digit points. Arkansas (18-12, 7-9 SEC) shot 43.5 percent from the floor, and made 10 of 18 3-pointers, good for 56 percent.

"The game changed for us defensively," Kennedy said. "It was kind of back and forth. Neither team had real control after they made the push in the first half. We put together three or four consecutive stops, strung together some baskets, kind of got our second wind and were able to close the game strong."

Then it all came back to Warren, to Graham, who combined to make 13 of 26 shots. Here they were, for the last time on their home court, gingerly walking to the bench with the final seconds ticking away, fans standing -- all standing.

Unless Ole Miss hosts a National Invitation Tournament game, it was the final time for such a moment. The pregame ceremony, when the pair was presented framed versions of their uniforms by Kennedy at mid-court with their parents alongside, was hours in the past now. The glamor, the glitz, was fading.

Two players. One, Warren, is third place on the all-time Ole Miss scoring chart. The other, Graham, is tied with Jason Harrison -- one of the five members of the Sweet Sixteen team honored at halftime -- for the school record for the most games played in a career with 132.

"It's senior night. You're making a last impression on your last home game," Warren said. "This night will be memorable."

"I just really had a lot of fun out there tonight," Graham said. "I appreciated (the ovation). Words can't explain it, the support the fans have given us for four years. All I can say is thank you."

Attention now shifts to Atlanta. Ole Miss has to win all four of its games to gain an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament -- the only shot to snap a drought dating back to 2001-02; the only shot to send these two players out with the trip to the Big Dance they deserve.

Auburn won four games in four days in 1985. Arkansas did it in 2000. Georgia won four games in three days in 2008. Mississippi State pulled off wins in all four games in 2009.

"It just comes down to focus," Graham said. "All the hard practices are over. Coach said that. It's just playing ballgames now. If you don't want to play, you shouldn't be out there. I think everybody's ready."

Ole Miss lost its only meeting with South Carolina, 79-73, in Columbia over a week ago.

"Was it our goal to be third in the West? Of course not. But it is where we are," Kennedy said. "We just played South Carolina, unsuccessfully, 10 days ago. We're familiar with them. I've been here four years. Two of the four years, a team had to win four games in four days. It can certainly be done. Can we do it? We'll see."

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