To Andy Kennedy, no game constitutes the declaration of "must-win." Though coaches' speak, every season is a marathon, not a sprint. Highs and lows are nothing new in a 30-game schedule, but rather a continual grind week-in and week-out.
However, aided by easily their worst half of basketball this season Saturday, the Rebels' season hung on the brink. Alabama, who entered the game 13-9 overall and 3-5 in SEC play, led 40-20 at halftime.
Message boards exploded. Mere disappointment ballooned into utter distastefulness. Venom, even.
For a moment, it appeared a once promising season would again end in disappointment. Hopes of the NCAA Tournament, long expected in Kennedy's fourth year, were dashed.
Heck, some were calling for Kennedy's firing before the second-half tipoff.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Ole Miss racked up 54 points in the final frame, compared to only 27 for Alabama. Terrence Henry, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the team's more potent threats, scored a career-high 20 points. He also added eight rebounds.
When the dust settled, and in thrilling fashion, the Rebels claimed a 74-67 comeback win.
"We just could not afford to drop this game," said Kennedy postgame, his team moving to 17-6 overall and 5-4 in the SEC on the year. "I wish I could tell you that it was something I said at halftime that turned it around, but it wasn't. It was about our players."
To be frank, Saturday was a season-saver. Entering the game, Ole Miss had already dropped two of its first three conference home games. Throw in a fourth, and the selection committee come tournament time would be hard-pressed to feel sympathy.
It was a needed, and possibly season-jolting, momentum boost. Call it a partial reprieve for bad home losses to Mississippi State and Arkansas.
"We couldn't let someone come into our house and take what we've got," Henry said. "We have more pride than that. We played very poorly in the first half and did some serious talking at halftime. Everyone geared it up and fought hard the entire second half."
Thursday sets the table for the encore.
Seven games remain in the regular season. A final league record of 10-6, at least according to Kennedy, all but assures a spot in the tourney. To reach that mark, though, the Rebels would need a blistering 5-2 finish.
Basically, Ole Miss controls its own destiny.
Up first is a road rematch with the in-state rival at 8 p.m. Last season, Ole Miss grabbed a 67-63 win over the Bulldogs in Starkville, its first there in 11 years. The Rebels would later lose an 82-80 heartbreak at home, however, before the SEC Tournament.
Fast-forward a year, and Ole Miss will be in search of another season split.
Ole Miss opened conference play with a deflating 80-75 loss to these same Bulldogs. The Rebels led by as many as nine points twice in the second half, but allowed Dee Bost to rack up 17 of his game-high 25 points to close it out.
"Coach (Kennedy) preached to us all week about stopping him in transition," Henry said after the game. "He's a key to their team. We stopped him early sometimes, but he got the best of us."
The expectation, as aptly stated by The Who, is Ole Miss won't get fooled again.
"Wins like (Saturday) give you confidence," junior point guard Chris Warren, who scored 21 points against Alabama, said. "I won't say it's a statement game, but it's important."
But how important? If the Rebels finish what they appeared to start Saturday, enough to go dancing in March.
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