Basically, it was win-or-else. Hopes of the NCAA Tournament hung on the outcome of a quarterfinals match with Tennessee.
What followed, however, was far from a storybook ending.
Ole Miss (21-10, 9-7 SEC) was outscored by 12 points in the final 20 minutes in the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena, en route to a 76-65 loss to the 13th-ranked Vols.
Beforehand, Ole Miss had controlled its own destiny. The Rebels were riding a four-game win streak and a first-round bye. Friday carried the greatest of postseason implications. Some even referred to it as a play-in game, of sorts.
Now a tourney ticket lay at the mercy of the NCAA selection committee.
"We'll just wait for Sunday," forward Murphy Holloway said postgame.
Heads hung low in the Rebel locker room afterwards. The silence was deafening. Towels were draped over heads to hide dejection. Disappointment was painted across almost every face.
Ole Miss had wasted its final opportunity to impress on a national stage. The continuation of an eight-season NCAA Tournament drought appeared inevitable.
"There's so much made of this team in, this team out," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. "To be honest with you, it's just counterproductive for us to live in that world. All we can do is continue to play the game that's in front of us.
"Now there are no more games until they tell us what's next."
An unsettling reality.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi has Ole Miss amongst his "Last Four Out" of the NCAA Tournament. That was before Houston upset No. 21 UTEP in the Conference USA tournament Saturday afternoon. The Cougars and Miners are both expected to join the field of 65 when officially announced Sunday.
Illinois, also considered a bubble team, held off Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament.
To make matters worse, Mississippi State advanced to today's championship game of the SEC Tournament – further adding to Ole Miss' already bleak NCAA prospects.
"We never stop fighting," point guard Chris Warren said. "We keep fighting all the way. We've got to learn from (our mistakes) sometime. Hopefully it wasn't too late."
Warren led the team in scoring against Tennessee with 16 points. But his nine turnovers all proved costly, especially down the stretch.
The junior couldn't take his eyes off a final stat sheet when sitting by his locker following another disappointing final. He blamed himself and searched for answers. There were none. He had suffered an up-and-down performance at the most inopportune of times.
"Very uncharacteristic of Chris," Kennedy says. "He's been our all-league guy, our most consistent player."
And that's how it was after the only game played by Ole Miss in the Music City. Few could find the words to describe what happened, let alone look toward what the future might hold.
A berth in the National Invitational Tournament seems the likely destination. It's a somber thought, too. Ole Miss has been there in three of Kennedy's four seasons.
This team had greater aspirations, NCAA Tournament aspirations. Yet, the Rebels fell short when it mattered most.
"Obviously, it's not a good position to be in," Kennedy says. "We'll have to wait and see."
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