On to round three of the NIT

If you wonder what the NIT means, Monday night's 85-75 Ole Miss overtime win against Nebraska should have answered it for you. Or at least narrowed it down some.

For starters, how about a 23-10 Ole Miss team that now has more wins than any other men's basketball team in school history but the 2000-01 team that won 27 and advanced to the NCAA's Sweet Sixteen?

Those 23 wins looked well within reach after a school-best 13-0 start. But it took until now to get there. Without the NIT, Andy Kennedy couldn't have mentioned that milestone in his postgame remarks.

With 23 in the bag, the Rebels play on, traveling to Blacksburg, Va., to face Virginia Tech Wednesday night. The Hokies were a 75-49 victor against UAB also on Monday night.

Playing in the three-letter tourney is about a couple of other things. One, it's about getting to New York and playing for a championship. And two, it's about giving the returning players an opportunity to improve by playing more games against Division I competition.

Kennedy says it's also something else.

"It's about the seniors. It really is," said Kennedy, coaching in his third straight NIT – one at Cincinnati and two here. "Some people say the NIT is great because you get extra practice for the freshmen, and that's true. But it's about these seniors and giving them an opportunity to create a memory."

Another memory for Dwayne Curtis, Jermey Parnell, Kenny Williams, and Brian Smith (Brian's father Tubby was in attendance, traveling from Minnesota to watch his son's last Ole Miss home game since his Golden Gophers had already been eliminated.).

The NIT's also a chance for a team to prove what the Rebels have proven the past two games.

"As a competitor you want to win every time out," Kennedy said. "We were terribly disappointed about not getting in (the NCAA Tournament), and I contributed to that by making the NCAA the ultimate prize. I thought the way we finished the regular season (three straight wins) that it was very tangible. Obviously with our inability to win in the SEC Tournament, we thought that opportunity had slipped past."

Ultimately it had. What they got was a No. 2 seed in the NIT, and two more home games. They won the first one 83-68 over UC Santa Barbara.

In the Rebels victory over the Cornhuskers, Ole Miss had a shot with .5 seconds to go and the game tied at 70. A lob from near halfcourt by Eniel Polynice to Kenny Williams all alone under the Rebels goal was fumbled just for a split second, which allowed a Cornhusker defender to close in and for Williams to sail his shot just over the basket.

In overtime the Rebels pulled away, outscoring the Huskers 15-5 to advance. Freshman Zach Graham scored 10 of the Rebels' 15 in OT. That's 10 points he would never have scored had the Rebels not been in this tournament, and he gave a huge lift to his team toward a significant victory. He actually finished with 14 points, one of five Rebs in double figures, including Chris Warren with 18, Polynice with 15, Williams with 14, and Curtis with 10.

Zach Graham in this one. Rodney Jones in the last one. The NIT is sometimes about guys stepping up that you might not expect.

Nebraska head coach Doc Sadler, after his team's season ended with a record of 20-13, said Graham wasn't the only Rebel that came to play.

"Their whole team is an aggressive basketball team," said the second-year head coach of the Huskers, whose team trailed 40-36 at halftime. "We didn't stop anybody. Ole Miss was the aggressive team offensively. The one thing our team has done all year is defended. You can't go on the road and give up 40 points in the first half. We cut it to 30 in the second half, and that was better. But then you give up 15 points in overtime. You won't win any ballgames giving up 15 points in overtime. Our defense in overtime was not good enough, and that was the difference in the game."

Kennedy wasn't surprised the Cornhuskers came into Tad Smith Coliseum playing to move on to round three. The Rebels couldn't shake the visitors, who put four in double figures themselves, led by big man Aleks Maric's 18 points.

"Anytime you lose now, it's over," Kennedy said. "At this stage, the next loss for all of us and it's all over. Teams have pride. Nebraska has a lot of pride. They won 20 out of the Big 12 and they're a quality team. We knew they weren't going away."

The Rebels didn't go away either. And now they continue to play for, well, make a list and take your pick.

It's what the NIT is all about.

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