A 16-3 Rebel run pushed Ole Miss secured an automatic NCAA tournament bid for Ole Miss.
NASHVILLE — Ole Miss won’t have to wonder anymore if it will be headed to the NCAA tournament. The Rebels (26-8, 14-7 Southeastern Conference) locked up the SEC’s automatic bid Sunday with a drama-filled 66-63 win over top-seeded Florida in the conference’s championship game.
The win is No. 3 Mississippi’s third in three days and caps a run that saw it beat No. 6 Missouri at the buzzer in the quarterfinals on Friday and outlast No. 10 Vanderbilt in Saturday’s semis.
“We worked so hard to get to this point, and it just feels so good to celebrate with the guys in the locker room,” Rebels senior guard Nick Williams said. “I don’t know man. I’m at a loss for words.”
With 36 seconds to play and Ole Miss up four, Florida’s Mike Rosario went down the middle and finished with contact. Casey Prather stripped Mississippi’s Marshall Henderson on the inbounds and flipped the ball to Scottie Wilbekin as Florida coach Billy Donovan took a timeout.
But out of the stoppage Eric Murphy’s hook shoot hit the front rim and Murphy Holloway snagged the rebound and hit the first of two foul shots in the bonus, pushing the Rebel lead to three.
Murphy grabbed the board and found Wilbekin running the floor, but Williams grabbed ahold of him before he could get a shot off. The Gainesville, Fla. native missed both shots in the double bonus, but Kenny Boynton grabbed the board near the perimeter and his off-balance trey, as time expired, rimmed out, sealing the win for the Rebels.
“Eric’s got a five-foot jump-hook, made a heck of a move, just didn’t go in,” Donovan said. “We missed a free throw and Patrick (Young) and Eric (Murphy) do a great job running the play, it’s desperation. And they executed. They slapped the ball up in the air, I don’t know how good of a look Kenny got, but we gave ourselves a chance to at least tie.”
Overall, Ole Miss used a five-minute 16-3 run, powered by eight of Marshall Henderson’s 21 points, to turn a seven-point Gator advantage into a six-point Rebel lead.
Holloway, an all tournament-team selection, added a game-high 23 points including 12 in the first half, and 10 rebounds, to keep Ole Miss within striking distance.
Reginald Buckner, another all-tournament honoree, tallied 11 more points, five boards and three blocks.
“The dirty work, the grind is being done by these three guys that were on this podium earlier,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said, referring to Holloway, Buckner and Williams.
Henderson, the tournament MVP, started 1-of-6 from the field for the third straight game, but battled back to hit six of his last eight for 18 second-half points. The Rebels shot 53.6 percent in the period.
The Gators controlled the game early, jumping out to a 15-4 lead before Mississippi finally pulled even, matching Florida’s 22 points until intermission.
“The people trying to create this drama around a situation that’s not necessarily true,” Donovan said. “Our guys haven’t lost confidence at all. They dug themselves a hole with our lack of defense. … The truth of the matter is we were up 12 and allowed Ole Miss to shoot 53 percent in the second half and we shot 29 percent.”
But out of the break, Ole Miss scored the first five points, then added four more after a three from Rosario. Another free throw from the Florida guard prompted Henderson to take a three, but Wilbekin bodied him in midair and Henderson made all three free throws to start the Rebel run.
Three more foul shots after Wilbekin hit Henderson on another three-point-attempt gave Mississippi its first lead of the night.
A free-throw and trey from Rosario, who finished with a team-high 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting, stopped the bleeding for the Gators and a three from Murphy returned the lead to Florida.
But Williams hit a jumper 15 seconds later to swing the lead to back Ole Miss’ way. From that point, they held the margin for good.
“That is the mantra now. Survive and advance,” Kennedy said. “We’re in the dance. So much is made of the NCAA tournament. I was just glad to get the albatross that is the NCAA tournament off of the neck of our program so that people now could exhale and get a new focal point.”