Story of a Season

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Ole Miss guard LaDarius White put it best.

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Fifteen days ago, Ole Miss lost at Mississippi State. A "humiliating" loss, according to White, but what turned out to be the rallying point for these Rebels, who reeled off five straight wins, culminating in an upset win of Florida in the SEC tournament championship game on Sunday.

Disappointment to confetti. Dashed hopes to an automatic NCAA tournament berth. The Rebels are a No. 12 seed, playing No. 5 Wisconsin, in Kansas City, Mo., on Friday.

"State is our rival," White said. "That loss, it was humiliating. State isn't a good team. We underestimated them, and they came out and beat us. We woke up to reality. This is real. Nobody's going to give us anything. We had to take what we want."

Boy, did they.

Tears streamed down the face of an emotional Nick Williams as the final seconds ticked away here in Bridgestone Arena. Ole Miss, the Lazarus of bubble teams, had finally broken through the ceiling.

"We worked so hard to get to this point," Williams said. "It just feels so good to celebrate with the guys in the locker room. I'm at a loss for words."

Players embraced mid-court. Head coach Andy Kennedy was emotional as SEC Commissioner Mike Slive handed him the championship trophy. Marshall Henderson, the SEC tournament MVP, popped his jersey, took his turn cutting down the net and laughed at "the haters" in his postgame meeting with the media.

Was a loss at Mississippi State what the Rebels needed?

Nick Williams
Bruce Newman

"The Mississippi State game was an eye-opener for us," said senior forward Reginald Buckner, who scored 11 points and grabbed five rebounds against the Gators, while also landing on the All-SEC tournament team. "We kind of got relaxed around that time. We played hard and it got us here."

Mississippi State had lost 13 straight games when it welcomed Ole Miss to Humphrey Coliseum. No matter. A rivalry is a rivalry, as the game would later prove, and Ole Miss suffered a sub-200 RPI loss, seemingly damaging its postseason resume beyond repair.

That is, until Sunday, when the Rebels were vindicated.

"I didn't want to go through that Mississippi State loss," said Murphy Holloway, the catalyst against Florida with his 23 points and 10 rebounds. He made 11 of 14 shots on Sunday, and was named to the all-tournament team.

"One minute, it's the start of the season, started out 6-0, on top of the world. Next thing you know, you lose a couple games. I think we just realized (to) stay the course and just handle your business."

Kennedy said it was easy to flip the script following the loss to Mississippi State. Senior Night against Alabama was three days away. "You win that game," he said today, "you go to LSU with the opportunity to play for a double-bye. That was the motivation. Coming here, we knew we had work to do."

Ole Miss won three games this weekend. When the Rebels returned home to Oxford, Miss., a swarm of Red and Blue faithful were waiting inside Tad Smith Coliseum, watching along with them as they heard their name called on CBS.

Kennedy? He was proud. But not because the winningest coach in Ole Miss history had finally reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in his seven seasons as coach, but because his players responded two weeks ago when all was stacked against them.

"I've never really thought about it in terms of me," Kennedy said. "I know that's cliché, but I really don't. I think about it in terms of what it means for the university, what it means for our program."

Ole Miss, at long last, can finally dust off its dancing shoes, whether Mississippi State was the moment it all turned, as his players said, or not.

"I know everybody wants to go back to the Mississippi State loss as this hallelujah moment," Kennedy said. "No, it wasn't. It was playing well. As the sky was falling around them, they never doubted. They stayed the course."

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