Grit, Grind

NEW ORLEANS, La. -- Thursday was the first step Ole Miss had to take. Mission accomplished. The Rebels fight on. There's another opportunity Friday.

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In a predictably ugly game, Ole Miss ran away from Auburn, 68-54, earning a win in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament. The Rebels, the No. 7 seed here in New Orleans, advance to face No. 2 seed Tennessee Friday at 6:30 p.m.

Give Ole Miss (19-12, 8-8 SEC) head coach Andy Kennedy and his team a lot of credit. This team was left for dead two weeks ago. Now the Rebels take another step towards a possible NCAA tournament berth.

To do that, however, they'll have to beat a Tennessee team that came from behind to beat Ole Miss by 13 in Knoxville Feb. 22. Tennessee holds a 69-38 lead in the series. Kennedy is 2-5 against the Volunteers in his career.

"I think they've played to their strengths," Kennedy said of Tennessee. "They play physical basketball. They don't allow you to dribble through them often. They're going to make you beat them over the top, and they're very strong at the rim. They're a tenacious team. They're a team that plays to its strengths on both ends."

Ole Miss held true to form Thursday. They played stingy defense, made timely shots and owned the boards, outrebounding Auburn, 45-31. As Kennedy has said over and over, the Rebels are what they are.

Their games can be painful to watch at times. They're limited in their ability to score. To beat Tennessee, the game has to be a grind-it-out, ugly affair. Ole Miss can't compete in a high-scoring game.

Andy Kennedy
Associated Press

Lost in all of this -- a back-from-the-dead, four-game winning streak -- is what Kennedy has done. He's done what Houston Nutt couldn't do months ago in football. He's rallied his team. They're competing, and competing hard. They're battling each and every game.

Coming into the tournament, Ole Miss had to get two wins to really stamp its place on the bubble and make its case. If the Rebels beat Tennessee, they'll be a step closer. And if this carries on to Saturday and Ole Miss gets another win, it's in. Period. No questions asked.

"It's going to be tough, man," junior forward Murphy Holloway said of the team's second-round matchup. "We owe them. That's all I can say."

I'll say it. This is Kennedy's best coaching job. Balk at such a suggestion. Really, go ahead. The only season comparable is the 2008-09 season, when Ole Miss finished 16-15 despite season-ending injuries to Chris Warren and Trevor Gaskins, and Zach Graham played but couldn't practice due to a significant knee injury.

Honestly, this team has no business being where it is, the eve of a play-in game of sorts with Tennessee. Ole Miss' most prolific scorer, Dundrecous Nelson, was dismissed in January. Jelan Kendrick has proven to be a headache. He didn't travel to New Orleans. He was suspended earlier in the week for the second time this season. Holloway, Ole Miss' most important player, missed extended time with an ankle injury suffered in a loss to Middle Tennessee State.

This is a team the complete opposite of any team Kennedy likely envisioned when he was hired six years ago. When he arrived, Kennedy said he wanted to field a team that could push for 100 points a night. This team struggles to get to 65. But the Rebels have 19 wins, even after appearing dead to rights two weeks ago.

"It was a grind. Every game is," Kennedy said following the win over Auburn.

He's right. It was a grind. But Ole Miss has won four straight because of its ability to grind.

What the Rebels lack in scoring they make up for with defense and rebounding. They've played to their strengths lately, taking on the personality of Holloway -- a garbage team, and I mean that in the most endearing of ways.

Murphy Holloway
Associated Press

Warren is long gone. He was a Kennedy-type player. He scored in bunches. However, he was a below average defender. Ole Miss has five players in its starting lineup that can defend. Nick Williams, its best defender, can shut down a top scorer, and when he's scoring 22 points and Holloway manages a double-double, Ole Miss is tough to beat.

Kennedy has faced considerable criticism this season. At some point, a head coach has to reach the NCAA tournament. The NCAA tournament is the barometer. Kennedy knows it. Fans know it. Athletics directors know it.

But a coach needs luck along the way, too. Ole Miss is two double-overtime losses away against Alabama and this same Auburn team from being at 21 wins and looking ahead to NCAA tournament seeding. But that's neither here nor there. Hindsight, as always, is 20/20.

Ole Miss has an opportunity Friday. An opportunity for 20 wins. I've said all year if Ole Miss gets to 20, it's in the field of 68. The bubble's that bad, folks. Again, though, a third would secure a berth.

Ole Miss can make that happen. Somehow, some way, it can make it happen. Thursday's win was the third SEC tournament win in Kennedy's career as Ole Miss head coach. He needs a fourth.

And if he gets it, he'll silence his detractors.

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