Making a Case

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With one shot, a Derrick Millinghaus floater in the lane, a season changed for the better.

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The play was designed for Marshall Henderson, who had almost single-handily brought Ole Miss back from a 14-point second-half deficit to tie. But Millinghaus, in for Jarvis Summers, who head coach Andy Kennedy possibly suffered a concussion, would have to take the shot. Missouri was denying Henderson the ball.

Henderson passed, Millinghaus drove. Everyone in Bridgestone Arena here in Nashville, Tenn., rose to their feet. A tie game. Postseason implications. This was March, all right, and the smallest player on the floor, the 5-foot-8 Millinghaus, was about to deliver some magic.

As the shot went up, the some 20 seconds left had dipped all the way to two.

"I knew it (was in) as soon as I threw it up," Millinghaus said.

Swish. Final: Ole Miss 64, Missouri 62.

"I know the NCAA tournament doesn't start usually until next Thursday, but we just gave a precursor," Kennedy said, his team now 24-8 overall and with an RPI of 51. "That was a first-round NCAA tournament game between two NCAA tournament teams. Missouri is an outstanding team."

What was at stake on this night was crystal clear.

No. 3 seed Ole Miss, firmly on the bubble, took to the court to face No. 6 seed Missouri in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament needing a win to boost its NCAA tournament profile. But not just any win - a top-50 RPI win. The Rebels were 1-4 against top-50 teams entering the game, with that win coming over these same Tigers in January. Black marks on the resume was two sub-200 losses to Mississippi State and South Carolina.

Ole Miss had a lot fall its way bubble-wise in the hours leading up to the 9 p.m. tip-off to close out day three of this tournament.

Marshall Henderson
USA TODAY images

"We're not dumb," Henderson, who scored a game-high 27 points on 8 of 18 shooting, said. "We were watching ESPN all day and saw every single team on the bubble lost. We had to take what is ours."

Earlier in the day, Tennessee had lost to Alabama, LaSalle to Butler and Virginia to North Carolina State. A Kentucky win over Vanderbilt would have set up another resume-building opportunity on Saturday. The Wildcats lost.

All inconsequential without an Ole Miss win.

Joe Lunardi of updated his bracket projection before the game. Ole Miss, after weeks on the outside, had finally made its way back into his "first four in." This was the kind of opportunity NCAA tournament teams take advantage of - a play-in with everything at stake.

Murphy Holloway spoke Thursday of his team wanting "to get something done, do something special." Ole Miss last reached the NCAA tournament in 2002. A win would have gone a long way in the Rebels, and Kennedy, breaking through. Kennedy is the winningest coach in Ole Miss history, but he's yet to experience the Big Dance in any of his seven seasons.

Ole Miss kept its hopes alive with its win on Friday.

"We just beat Missouri," Henderson said. "That's an NCAA tournament team. We beat them two times out of three. Every other team lost. They're done. We're still playing. We've just got to go ahead and take what's ours. We come back tomorrow and play Vanderbilt. Might as well go ahead and win that game, too."

But is there work left to do? Some feel Ole Miss can't lose tomorrow to No. 10 seed Vanderbilt (16-16), who has an RPI of 106 RPI, according to Lunardi tweeted his final Friday bracket in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Ole Miss was the last team in.

No team with 24 wins from a big six conference since the RPI was reconfigured in 2005 has been left out of the NCAA tournament.

"There's a lot of things you can't control," Kennedy said. "Some of the teams that are in the same pod with us lost today. We didn't. We just beat an NCAA tournament team on neutral site and an NCAA tournament quality game. Our numbers, I think, reflect the fact that hopefully we can get our name called on Sunday."

Ole Miss made its case. The smallish point guard, playing only because of injury, made sure.

"It feels unreal right now," said Millinghaus, who scored 11 points in 22 minutes, 18 of those in the second half. "I felt like this was my chance to show the world what I'm capable of, what type of player I am.

"I feel like I'm able to play with anybody in the country."

Ole Miss, with its win tonight, can say the same.

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