BLOG — Two weeks after losing a heartbreaker at Mississippi State, the Ole Miss Rebels are playing for the Southeastern Conference Tournament title.
The No. 3 seed Ole Miss Rebels continued to prove their critics wrong by advancing to the SEC Championship game against No. 1 seed Florida Sunday. Ole Miss accomplished its pre-tournament goal of winning at least two games by defeating Vanderbilt 64-52 in front of a crowd of 14,574 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday afternoon. It’s the first time the Rebels have advanced this far in the tournament under coach Andy Kennedy and the first time the Rebels have played for the title since 2001.
A fantastic defensive effort and the leadership of Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway made the difference for the Rebels, who improved to 25-8 overall and improved their resume for making the NCAA Tournament in the process.
Buckner and Holloway combined to score 27 points and grab 17 rebounds against the Commodores (16-17), who were playing their third game in three days. Ole Miss was led on the scoring ledger by Marshall Henderson for the second straight game and while his 23 points were pivotal in the win, Kennedy felt like the play of Holloway and Buckner, in the paint on offense and defense, really was the key to winning the semifinal matchup.
Another key to success revolved around the way the Rebels played on defense. Ole Miss pressured Vanderbilt early and got them out of rhythm. Kennedy played a lot of zone on defense to take away the paint and force the tired Commodores to take jump shots. The strategy resulted in the Commodores making just 6 of 30 from behind the 3-point arc.
“I thought early they came out with a lot of excitement. They are in their home city. I thought they had some energy in the building behind them. They came out with pop in their step, but as the players just referred to, the advantage of finishing third in the SEC and receiving a double buy comes into play the third day of a tournament,” Kennedy said. “It’s difficult, you know, in all the years I’ve been doing this, both as an assistant and head coach, I felt like this game really got on us quickly. By the time we got back to the hotel and gave them something to eat and went through treatment and just started talking about the schedule for today, I looked and it’s 1, 1:30 in the morning. Then you get up and start trying to ingest as much as possible about a Vanderbilt team who runs as much offense — I’ve got nothing but the utmost respect for Kevin (Stallings) and his program. He’s the perfect coach for Vanderbilt. We’re trying to ingest as much as possible in a very short period of time.
“So we came out, and I thought we were a little bit flat initially simply because of the effort that it took to get through Missouri. And so then the whole time I kept saying, ‘as tired as you are, can you imagine if you had to play another game?’” Kennedy continued. “Vanderbilt, they didn’t play the Sisters of the Poor. They had to beat Arkansas and Kentucky. That takes a lot of energy. So we knew that if we could hang around and get that thing to the second half, it’s the reason really I want to so much zone. I wanted to keep them out of the paint, and I wanted them to have to make jump shots. And jump shots usually go when you when your legs and that was the case tonight.”
Kennedy was asked, for the second straight night, if he felt like his Rebels had done enough to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. Of course if Ole Miss wins Sunday, they would receive the SEC’s automatic bid to the field of 68.
“Having won 14 SEC games and with not many people playing, I feel pretty confident about our opportunity to get the albatross from the neck of this program as it relates to the NCAA Tournament,” Kennedy said. “I’m very proud of these seniors because they’ve stayed the course to earn that. We have a saying on the wall of our practice facility ‘earn your way’ and that’s what they’ve done. They haven’t backed their way into it and I’m proud of that.”
Kennedy also talked about the message he gave his team prior to playing the Commodores and what the win would mean for a program that hasn’t won a title in several seasons.
“We have a chance to compete for a championship and there is very few times in your life when you have a chance to compete for a championship. So that’s where I want our focus to be. I want them to play loose and free and if we make it to Sunday, we have the makings of a party,” Kennedy said. “On Saturday, you have a chance to do something special that no one can take away from you for the rest of your life. You have a chance to play for a championship, an SEC Championship, and that’s exciting.”
Below are two videos of Nick Williams and Buckner immediately after the game in the team’s locker room.
(March 16, 2013)