Determined not to allow their stay in Atlanta to be cut short, the West No. 3 Rebels dismissed East No. 6 seed South Carolina, 66-55, Thursday afternoon in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The win snapped a three-year opening-game losing streak for the Rebels, who improve to 20-12 overall.
"I was proud of our guys," head coach Andy Kennedy said. "Great effort. Execution still lacks a little to be desired, but I thought the effort was tremendous, most especially defensively. (South Carolina is) a scrappy group. We knew they weren't going to go away."
It's the fourth 20-win season under Kennedy in the last five years. He becomes the first Ole Miss coach to produce four 20-win seasons. Ole Miss moves on to face East No. 2 seed Kentucky Friday at 2:30 p.m. CT.
"I do think having the opportunity to play in Day 1, if you can advance, I think it's an advantage," Kennedy said. "We have a game under our belt in this building. I would think with that comes a sense of confidence."
For Ole Miss, the SEC Tournament provides new life after an up-and-down regular season. The goal is simple: survive and advance.
The Rebels were firmly on the bubble for entry into the National Invitation Tournament prior to the game, though they certainly helped their case today. They can only reach the NCAA Tournament by sweeping all four of their games over a four-day stretch.
The latter is far more appealing to Kennedy and company, despite the uphill climb they face over the coming days. Only four schools in conference tournament history have won four games in four days.
And they draw Kentucky next.
Graham and the Rebels can sleep easy at least tonight. Beating South Carolina (14-16), who won the only meeting between the schools in the regular season, carried meaning for all involved, especially to Graham and fellow senior Chris Warren -- it was their first win in the SEC Tournament.
"It actually feels kind of regular," Warren said of winning his first SEC Tournament game. "We're looking forward to winning our next games. This is just a regular game. We've got to win three more."
Warren led four Rebels in double-digit points with 20 -- his 15th 20-point game of the season. He needs 22 points against Kentucky to reach 2,000 points for his career.
Terrance Henry had a double-double, his second of the year, with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Reginald Buckner and Dundrecous Nelson chipped in 10 points apiece, with Buckner adding eight rebounds.
"I felt like we played pretty good defensively," Henry said. "We haven't been very good on defense in the SEC this year. I thought today was our best effort. They shot like 29 percent maybe. We came out in a zone and it kind of messed them up some."
Buckner played a career-high 34 minutes in the game, and totaled just three personal fouls. His presence, as Kennedy has alluded to all year, is instrumental for Ole Miss.
Kennedy said he brings a presence around the basket -- much needed for a guard-heavy team. He was especially needed against South Carolina, who featured a pair of 6-foot-9 forwards in Sam Muldrow and Lakeem Jackson. Muldrow and Jackson combined for just 17 points.
Muldrow also had nine rebounds and seven blocked shots, the most ever by a Gamecock in the SEC Tournament.
"When you look at our front court, we've hitched our wagon to Terrance and Reggie. When they produce like they did today, this team has shown very capable," Kennedy said.
Ole Miss led by as much as 14 points in the first half, but the Rebels allowed South Carolina to chip away. Despite leading 24-10 midway through the first half after a 17-0 run early in the game, the Rebels led by only four, 30-26, at halftime. Ole Miss made only one field goal over an eight-minute stretch.
In the second half, Ole Miss again built a 14-point lead. But, again, South Carolina refused to go away, pulling to within five, 50-45, with 7:33 to go. Ole Miss failed to register a field goal in well over four minutes.
Then Warren hit a basket to spark a 12-1 run and give his team the lead at 16 points, 62-46, its largest of the game.
"We're constantly on the sideline yelling for him to come back to the ball," Kennedy said of Warren. "He has to work so hard. When he gives up the ball, it's difficult for him to get it back. We want the ball in his hands, because all of our action typically runs through him."
Ole Miss shot 41 percent for the game, compared to only 30 percent for South Carolina. The Rebels connected on six of their 19 3-pointers, and 14 of 19 free throws. Both teams had 43 rebounds in the game. Ramon Galloway paced South Carolina with 17 points, all coming in the second half.
Up next are Kentucky and its always well-traveled fans.
Ole Miss beat the Wildcats in thrilling fashion earlier this season on a deciding 3-pointer by Warren on national television for Ole Miss' marquee win of the season. However, Kennedy said that game, played Feb. 1, has no bearing on the outcome of tomorrow's game.
"I'm really looking forward to it. I think it's going to be a great opportunity for our kids, great experience," Kennedy said. "For us, we know there's nothing like Big Blue Nation. For my money, nothing can touch Kentucky basketball fans. You get an opportunity to feel that when you're in the SEC Tournament. We're going to see it tomorrow. Certainly a home-court advantage for them. It's going to be an electric atmosphere."