Ole Miss overcame a 14-point deficit at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on Sunday afternoon to defeat the Florida Gators 66-63 and win the championship game of the SEC Tournament.
The Rebels celebrate their SEC Championship in Nashville, Tenn., on Sunday. Photos by Joshua McCoy, Ole Miss Athletics
The Rebels erased any and all doubt regarding their NCAA Tournament fate with the victory over Florida, earning the SEC’s automatic qualifier berth. It is the first SEC title for Ole Miss since 1981.
Many believed Ole Miss had done enough to crack the NCAA field on Saturday after knocking off Vanderbilt in the semifinal round. But as the sun rose on Sunday, some experts had changed their tune, saying the Rebels probably needed to beat Florida to assure their slot in the Big Dance.
Now, Ole Miss simply awaits this evening’s selection show to learn what seed and what location the NCAA Tournament selection committee will dole out.
It is the first time in seven seasons under Andy Kennedy that Ole Miss has qualified for the NCAA Tournament and the first conference title for the Rebels under their head coach, who only two weeks ago was considered to be embattled, as questions were being asked about his job security.
For sure, those questions have been put to rest.
Ironically,and perhaps fittingly, it was fifth-year senior Murphy Holloway, who earlier in the season spoke publicly about how this team wanted to win for Kennedy’s sake, who shined the brightest Sunday against the Gators. Holloway scored a game-high 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds. He hit 11-of-14 shots from the field and made a pressure-packed free throw at the end of the game that pull the Rebels up by the final score of 66-63.
Marshall Henderson struggled once again in the first half and headed into the intermission with just three points. In the second-half, his frenetic defense and offensive prowess pulled Ole Miss ahead and kept them there. Henderson scored 18 of his 21 points in the second half and was a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line. He hit 3-of-8 shots from 3-point range.
As the final horn sounded inside Bridgestone, the Rebels rushed the floor in celebration in front of a strong contingency of Ole Miss fans. Kennedy teared up.
Down 38-26 at the half, Ole Miss out-scored the Gators 17-5 over the first six and half minutes of the second period. Reginald Buckner’s layup with 13:40 on the second-half clock tied the game at 43-43.
Florida would move back ahead 45-43 but the Rebels tied things up again at 45-45. The Gators would edge in front 46-45 when Will Yeguete hit one of two free throws at the 12:29 mark.
Henderson would then be fouled on a 3-point attempt and promptly stepped to the charity stripe, knocking down all three attempts, moving Ole Miss in front, 48-46, with 12 minutes and 16 seconds to play.
The Gators would regain the lead, 53-52, at the 8:56 mark when Erik Murphy drained a 3-pointer. A jumper on the next possession from Nick Williams put the Rebels in front for good, 54-53.
Ole Miss would extend the lead out to six points twice before Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin dropped in a trey to pull the Gators to within 61-59 with 3:24 left. The Rebels would extend the lead out to four but a layup from Murphy with one minute a six seconds remaining made it a two point game, 63-61. Holloway answered for the Rebels with a layup at the other end, pishing the advantage back out to four, 65-61.
Florida’s Mike Rosario countered at the other end with a layup, pulling the Gators to within 65-63 with 36 seconds remaining in the game.
With10 ticks on the clock, Holloway gobbled up a rebound off a missed shot from Murphy, who then fouled the Rebel. Holloway hit the front end of a pair at the foul line, pushing the lead to 66-63.
With a broken floor, Ole Miss elected to foul the Gators rather than give them an opportunity at a game-tying 3-point shot. Wilbekin missed his first free throw, then intentionally missed his second. Murphy tipped the loose ball out to teammate Kenny Boynton, whose shot from behind the arc rimmed off into the hands of Buckner.
PARTY AT THE TAD PAD
Word out of Nashville is that there will be an NCAA selection show viewing party at the Tad Pad this afternoon at 5 p.m. The public is invited.
Full coverage coming…