“Welcome to March Madness,” he said.
“Hi, haters” would have been just as appropriate.
Rebel basketball is off to Jacksonville, Fla., for the second round of the NCAA tournament after downing BYU, 94-90, in the second of four play-in games to kickoff the basketball tournament of all basketball tournaments.
And Ole Miss made it happen in the most improbable of ways.
The No. 11 seed Rebels trailed hot-shooting BYU by 17 at halftime. They only proceeded to score a ridiculous 62 points in the second half to advance to face No. 6 seed Xavier Thursday.
“We wanted to show we belonged,” Kennedy said. “I’m really proud of the effort in the second half. What a game.”
The head coach deserves a ton of credit.
To borrow one of Kennedy’s often-used phrases, coaches are in a results-oriented business. Well, for those keeping score at home, Kennedy can now lay claim to two of Ole Miss’ five all-time NCAA tournament victories.
Or, to hammer the point home, 40 percent.
Even before he orchestrated a comeback that will go down in history as one of the greatest ever – in any sport – at Ole Miss, he had seven 20-win seasons under his belt. The Rebels recorded just seven 20-win campaigns in the 96 seasons prior to his arrival.
He has the third-most wins in SEC history by a coach in his first nine years in the league at one school, trailing only Joe B. Hall of Kentucky and Florida’s Billy Donovan. He’s the all-time winningest coach in school history with a resume boasting an SEC tournament championship, two SEC West championships and six postseason berths.
But there’s a segment of the fan base that refuses to accept him, with the usual criticisms being a lack of NCAA tournament appearances and perceived late-season “collapses.”
He can’t coach, those fans argue. They bemoan what they see as a lack of halftime adjustments, that his teams play “street ball.” Post after post on message boards and across social media.
If you find yourself in the above group, the second half Tuesday night was your nightmare.
“That was an unbelievable second half,” senior guard Ladarius White, who scored 10 points, said. “Unbelievable.”
Kennedy made the adjustment of substituting Aaron Jones and Anthony Perez for Sebastian Saiz and Dwight Coleby to start the second half. “We were having a hard time being man-to-man,” Kennedy explained. “They couldn’t get extended and (BYU) was making us pay.”
The result? BYU started to miss shots, and then Ole Miss was able to get into some of its changing of defense. Ball pressure resulted in turnovers – 10 total for the period. The Cougars made 10 of 15 3s in the first. They had to settle for 5 of 14 in the second.
“We had to stay to our principles,” said senior forward M.J. Rhett. Rhett finished with 20 points on 9 of 11 shooting, while adding three blocks and two rebounds. “We knew what the game plan was, trying to run them off the 3-point line.”
BYU goes fast. Kennedy wanted his team to make them go faster. The Rebels shot 60 percent (24-40) in the second half and finished at 45 percent. They’re now 19-4 on the year when shooting at least 40 percent.
Even more, they scored 50 points in the last 14:07 of the win – a rate of 141.7 points per 40 minutes.
“He just told us if this was going to be our last run, then just sit down,” guard Martavious Newby, who finished with 10 points and nine rebounds, said. “But if we were going to make history, we had to make a statement right here.”
Ole Miss did make a statement. The team that lost four of its previous five games, that laid an egg against South Carolina in the SEC tournament last week, that many wrote off at halftime tonight is gone. Not one major outlet picked Ole Miss to beat BYU.
The Rebels have life yet.
And so does their head coach.
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