On to Sunday

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It didn't matter how Ole Miss won Saturday, just so long as the Rebels won.

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Mission accomplished.

The third-seeded Rebels, with their 64-52 win over No.10 seed Vanderbilt in the semifinals of the SEC tournament this afternoon, advanced to the championship game to face top-seeded Florida Sunday at 12 p.m.

Ole Miss (25-8) has now won six of its last seven games, including four straight. The Rebels will be making their fifth appearance in the SEC tournament championship game.

"I feel pretty confident about our opportunity to get the albatross from around the neck of this program, as it relates to the NCAA tournament," head coach Andy Kennedy said. "We've got a chance to compete for a championship. There's very few times in your life that you have a chance to compete for a championship."

Despite winning a thriller over Missouri hours before, Ole Miss could ill-afford a loss to Vanderbilt. The Rebels couldn't take another bad loss, which a loss to Vanderbilt would have been. The Commodores (16-17) entered play with an RPI rank of 106.

But as the third Marshall Henderson 3 sailed through the nets with 4:11 remaining, extending the Ole Miss lead to 56-40 in what proved to be the dagger, the party was on for the few thousand Rebel fans in attendance.

Another step closer to the NCAA tournament. Ole Miss hasn't been there in 11 years.

"We've done enough," Henderson, who scored a game-high 23 points, said matter-of-factly. "You can't keep a 25-win team and second place in the SEC in the tournament and in the conference out of the tournament."

Murphy Holloway and Marshall Henderson
Josh McCoy

Though there are those who disagree, Ole Miss wasn't a lock to dance after beating Missouri. Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com was the only notable bracketologist to put the Rebels in the field. Others, such as Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com and Andy Glockner of SI.com, still had Ole Miss on the outside looking in.

A win against Missouri on a neutral floor was huge, giving the Rebels a 2-4 record against the RPI top-50 and boosting their RPI to 51.

But a loss a day later to a sub-100 RPI team would have been equally significant. The Rebels avoided the pothole. Their resume, shaky as it is, remains intact. They'll likely hear their name called on Selection Sunday, no matter the outcome of tomorrow's game.

Now, having won two here in Nashville, a lot would have to go wrong for Ole Miss not to finally break through. Of course, Ole Miss could erase all doubt by securing the auto-bid by beating Florida.

"I think it's icing on the cake," Buckner, who scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds against Vanderbilt, said of a win Sunday. "But we're still trying to do one thing - win an SEC championship."

"I just know that we won four games in a row," guard Nick Williams said. "If they keep us out, somebody needs to talk to somebody. Every game we play, we feel like we've got to win. We have been (to the NCAA tournament) in so long. We just stay together."

Kennedy deserves a ton of credit. This team had every reason to fold after losing to in-state rival Mississippi State two weeks ago. The Rebels' NCAA tournament prospects weren't good at all. They had to win.

Now, the winningest coach in Ole Miss history is on the cusp of reaching his first NCAA tournament. And he's done it on the back of Henderson, a polarizing figure who should be fun to watch in the field of 64 - whether the journey begins in Dayton, Ohio, or somewhere else.

Take this postgame quote, for example.

"The last couple NCAA tournaments, you've seen Steph Curry and a Jimmer Fredette. I'm trying to be them," he said. "I'm trying to make a name for myself so I can get this money."

Henderson was what Kennedy needed. When Missouri was running away from Ole Miss yesterday, he rode Henderson until he bucked. Because if a loss to Missouri was going to be how his seventh season at Ole Miss was going to end, well, then Kennedy was going to go down with the player he had invested so much in.

He knew the risks when he added the combustible guard last spring, from his checkered past to his on-court antics towards opposing players and fans. Henderson is his player.

And the guard responded with a 27-point performance in a thrilling win.

"Coach Kennedy, he's the best coach to play for, for me," Henderson said. "We see eye-to-eye on a whole lot of things. We're pretty much the exact same person, except he's a coach and I'm a player."

The perfect blend of coach and player.

"It's about focus with him," Kennedy said. "His passion comes from a good place. It really does. It's a matter of staying focused. He can easily get distracted and turn his energy into things that are not productive for anyone. I'm constantly challenging him to be focused."

Kennedy has been doing a lot of that over these impressive two weeks. He's taken a downtrodden team and brought it to within 40 minutes of an SEC championship and NCAA tournament berth.

It didn't matter how Ole Miss won Saturday, the Rebels just had to win. They did, and now they're likely dancing. And the beleaguered coach and the outspoken player are the primary reasons why.

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