So close, not so far
Terrence Henry, his team awaiting the final seconds of a 76-65 loss to Tennessee in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, looked skyward.
There was no hope for divine intervention, mind you. No, Henry was faced with a grueling reality. NCAA Tournament hopes hung on the final numbers blasted across that scoreboard overhead. He needn't ask for a miracle.
Praying and pleading would only fall on deaf ears.
"In the game, I looked up to the board with a couple of minutes left and I saw (ESPN bracketologist) Joe Lunardi had us in," he said Monday. "We had lost, so I figured it was over from there."
He's right. The bubble conversation, for all intents and purposes, ended before it began.
Ole Miss (21-10, 9-7 SEC) was already well aware of its postseason fate, even before tournament selections were announced Sunday. The team didn't bother with a formal watch party as the March Madness field of 65 was revealed on CBS.
"I, honestly, knew the importance of the game against Tennessee in the quarterfinals," head coach Andy Kennedy said. "I knew that was the last opportunity to control our own destiny.
"Once we dropped that, I knew we were going to have to be very fortunate to get in. And then there were a lot of upsets the next day, which made the bubble shrink considerably in a 12-hour period. I knew, ultimately, what our fate was."
Now attention turns towards Troy. Ole Miss hosts the Trojans Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. The winner meets either Memphis or St. John's in the second round.
Kennedy has led the Rebels to NIT berths in three of his four seasons as head coach. But unlike previous years, years where Ole Miss and its fans welcomed the tournament with open arms, the ultimate fortune this season has been met with severe disappointment.
"You really don't want to go to the NIT," junior point guard Chris Warren said. "We set a goal to go to the NCAAs. But we'll make the best of it, strive from it and run with it."
Hosting a first-round, NIT matchup with Troy in Tad Smith Coliseum is a hard pill to swallow, considering preseason optimism. Sure, there are games left to be played. The Rebels, as competitors, will step on the floor and try to win them all, too.
But for coaches and players alike, hindsight and what could have been loom heavily. Should-be celebration has turned to questions of program momentum, or lack thereof. Kennedy was even posed the question of his job security Monday.
"I've got really high goals," Kennedy said. "This year, we challenged ourselves early. We felt we had an opportunity. Again, we're a game shy. I think we're just so very close. We have to find a way to get over the hump. It's ultimately my responsibility for us to do that and we're going to continue to pursue to get this program to where I know it's capable of being."
Kennedy has won 82 games in four years, including 31 against SEC competition. Before his arrival, Ole Miss was buried in basketball obscurity for years, with fan apathy rampant thanks, in part, to paltry league showings and unaccomplished postseason berths.
Many, especially amongst Ole Miss fateful, saw 2009-10 as the rebirth of Ole Miss basketball. The Rebels, with a wealth of talent and returning starters, were expected to end a drought of eight seasons without a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"We'll continue to evaluate, because being close is no comfort to us," Kennedy said. "We, ultimately, have goals we want to reach and we've come up short."
There's more to be gained than lost in the NIT. Ole Miss sits amongst a field of storied programs, including North Carolina, Illinois and Connecticut. In-state rival Mississippi State, co-SEC West champions with Ole Miss, is vying for a Final Four spot in New York, as well.
Memphis is the No. 3 seed in Ole Miss' side of the bracket.
"That's what everybody's saying – that it's a rivalry," Henry said of the Tigers. "We're 45 minutes away from each other. I guess it's a rivalry."
It was a quip to ease the blow of discontent, and a welcomed one. The atmosphere around the Ole Miss locker room needs some levity these days.
"It's tough because, as a coach, you want to put this goal up," Kennedy said. "We put this NCAA Tournament up there as the apple. Obviously, we didn't get the apple. So, now, you kind of come back. I told the team today. I said, ‘Obviously you're disappointed. I'm disappointed.'
"As we get closer to game time, I hope the competitive nature will take over. Teams that have the most success in the NIT are the ones who have the best opportunity to move forward the quickest."
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