But Ole Miss, like it had in four of its last five games, exited the floor on the losing end. No. 17 Vanderbilt got to the rim. Even with the return of freshman forward Reginald Buckner, A.J. Ogilvy had 27 points and eight rebounds.
The clock struck zero. Ole Miss (17-8, 5-6 SEC) lost 82-78.
The team, in search of the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002, was again left to ponder what might have been. What should have been.
"We can sit here and hang our heads or we can regroup as quickly as possible," Kennedy said. "We have to come back and protect our home floor. We know we've got six games left (counting at least one in the SEC Tournament). We've got to learn from our mistakes. We've gotta get over the hump. We've gotta have a belief that we're going to close games."
The game included 10 lead changes. Vanderbilt's largest was eight points, but it didn't come until late in the game. Opportunities were there. Ole Miss didn't capitalize.
With 5:26 remaining in the game, Eniel Polynice was good on a layup. For the last time, the Rebels had a lead at 60-59. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, reeled off an 8-2 run. At 67-62, the Commodores Ezeli Festus got to the rim for a dunk.
"I'm terribly disappointed that we haven't taken advantage of our opportunities," Kennedy said. "I'm terribly disappointed we've lost three games in this building. I'm the head coach. I take full responsibility."
As the Rebel foul total methodically climbed, Vanderbilt was knocking down free throws. In the second half alone, Vanderbilt was good on 21-of-28, including a 6-for-6 effort from Ogilvy in the final minutes to close it out.
"For us, it's the same story. It's been the story all year. We get doubled up on the foul line at home," Kennedy said, his team only 10-of-18 in the game from the charity stripe. "When we get the opportunity (for free throws), we don't cash in. You're not going to be successful against good basketball teams if you don't correct those mistakes."
Ole Miss, its RPI No. 48 nationally, needed another marquee win. Thursday was the opener of a three-game homestand. Kennedy was in search of his 100th career win.
The Rebels hold two impressive non-league wins over Kansas State and UTEP, but the losses in-conference could be their demise come selection time.
Now, the team faces the unenviable task of needing a sparkling close to keep its tournament hopes alive.
"It's very disappointing. You're supposed to take care of your home. We haven't done that at all," Murphy Holloway, who totaled 12 points and 10 rebounds in the loss, said. "I don't know about the RPI and all that. I just play. But I want to win out. I think that might be the best chance (for the NCAA Tournament). Just win out and everything will take care of itself."
Due largely to inspired basketball, Ole Miss came out firing in the first half. Three makes from beyond the arc sparked a 16-5 Rebel lead.
However, Vanderbilt came storming back due, primarily, to the contributions of Ogilvy and Jeffery Taylor. The pair accounted for 23 of the Commodores' 30 first-half points, including 10 straight to cut the deficit to 18-15 with 11:22 showing in the first half.
Before a late Murphy Holloway dunk, Vanderbilt was on a 9-2 run. The bucket pulled the Rebels, who lost their advantage on a two-point make by Taylor, within two at 30-28 at intermission.
Ole Miss led by as many as 11 points in the first half.
"We weren't going to come in here, make every shot, and just blow them out," said Kennedy of losing the early lead. "We had good looks at the basket. We just can't afford to leave points on the table."
Vanderbilt opened the deciding frame with a 6-2 spurt to go up 36-30. But Ole Miss responded with an 8-0 run all its own. From there, the game seesawed. Terrico White added two points to push the Rebels back in front 44-42.
Ahead 50-44 with just under 12 minutes to play, Ole Miss appeared to have the game under control. But another scoring drought, this time of the 10-3 variety in Vanderbilt's favor, made the score a Commodore friendly, 54-53. After Vandy went up 61-60 on a John Jenkins jumper with 5:05 left, the Rebels never led again.
"The reality is we're one of like 15 teams with our backs against the wall," Kennedy said of the team's NCAA Tournament picture. "Things can change tomorrow night. Trust me; I understand the importance of this game. I understand the missed opportunity. But as the coach, my job is to push forward. And that's what we're going to do."
Ole Miss shot 48.4 percent from the floor in the game, compared to 47.3 percent for Vanderbilt. The Rebels were also 44.4 percent (8-18) from 3-point range. Vanderbilt won the rebounding battle, 36-35.
Ole Miss was led in points by Chris Warren with 23 points. White followed with 14 on 6-of-11 shooting. Polynice had 12 points and seven assits.
Along with Ogilvy, two other Commodores amassed double digits. Taylor had 19 points and six rebounds. Jermaine Beal finished with 14 points, and was 9-of-10 in free throws.
"We're really happy to be able to come and get a victory here. They're a good team," Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said after his team improved to 20-5 and 9-2. "I hope they're an NCAA Tournament team. I certainly think they can be."
The Rebels return to action Saturday, as they play host to Florida at 11 a.m.
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