Ole Miss didn't earn the West No. 3 seed by mistake, by chance. The Rebels earned the distinction with a rather disappointing regular season. They struggled in Southeastern Conference play, all but limping to the Georgia Capital following a 7-9 record.
They played the part of a consistently inconsistent team for all of 40 minutes Thursday. Twice Ole Miss (20-12) led by at least 14 points, and twice it surrendered the lead to South Carolina, winners in just one -- against Ole Miss -- of its last 10 games.
But in a game that embodied all of the frustrating tendencies of this team, there was one glaring difference: the Rebels never allowed their glaring deficiencies to envelope a ship steadily taking on more and more water. They fought. They overcame. They advanced.
The mood postgame was as expected. There was a general excitement, renewed optimism of what the next three days hold. Ole Miss is a heavy underdog against East No. 2 seed Kentucky (22-8) Friday at 2:30 p.m. CT, but players talked as if they weren't.
"If our team plays to our potential we'll have a good shot at beating Kentucky," senior guard Chris Warren said.
Playing to potential. Consistency. Fans have heard it all before. This isn't rocket science. Because whether some fans admit it or not, this team is capable. They've proven as much against the best teams in the SEC -- Kentucky and Alabama -- when they claimed two wins. And they played Florida to within six in Gainesville.
Ole Miss should have beaten South Carolina. The Gamecocks were one of the worst teams in the conference this season. Still, records are thrown out the window upon tipoff in the Georgia Dome. It's a four-game season. The end game, an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, is there for any team to take.
Ole Miss moved closer to pulling it off. South Carolina went home. For three years, the Rebels were the ones packing their bags and catching the early flight back to Oxford. Thursday, they moved into unfamiliar territory, a team with its season rejuvenated, even if Friday's task is the greatest they've faced all year -- a sea of dedicated Kentucky faithful awaiting them.
Warren held the ball near mid-court, opposing players looking to the sideline in the direction of their head coach for the signal to foul. The final seconds of the game were ticking away, all but decided after Ole Miss made four free throws to extend its lead to double-digits.
He dribbled, his eyes pointed upwards with the scoreboard showing a 66-55 lead. Warren had yet to win a game in any of his previous three years in the SEC Tournament.
So he waited. Those ticks probably felt of a slow, torturous crawl. It was a moment Warren and this cast of Rebels were due for, one he and fellow senior Zach Graham could share after a rather trying senior season. But Warren isn't emotional. He doesn't buy into the gravity of the moment, the significance of another career milestone.
Thursday was only the first of hopefully four wins here in Atlanta. There's a greater goal awaiting his team. Maybe he'll relax Sunday, should the Rebels make it that far.
Warren was the player who hit the deciding 3-pointer against Kentucky Feb. 1. The shot was the top story in college basketball that Tuesday. Warren was a trending topic on Twitter, having piqued the interest of those who beforehand had no idea who Chris Warren was.
If that game didn't faze him, this wouldn't either. He has perspective. He has confidence. Wins are all that matter now. Well, wins and making it to the NCAA Tournament, at least a possibility after moving on from the first round.
"We just got to win three more," he said.
Three more. If speaking honestly, I had my doubts Ole Miss could win one. Optimism abounds after wins. Winning cures all. The future of the program, what will happen in the coming weeks, months, is delayed at least until Friday.
The Rebels will need an equal, if not better, effort to Thursday's win to beat Kentucky. Reginald Buckner has to stay in the game. Buckner's importance to the success or failure of this team cannot be overstated. Terrance Henry has to be assertive on both ends, slashing to the basket and getting tough rebounds.
Then there's Warren. And Graham. And ascending guard Dundrecous Nelson. Ole Miss has its work cut out for it today, but it's still here. It's still standing. There's more season left. The National Invitation Tournament, which the Rebels likely locked up Thursday, is the secondary goal now.
Winning cures all. The maelstrom of discontent has given way to calm waters for one more day.