NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It was supposed to be a Southeastern Conference coronation for Florida.
After all, the 13th-ranked Gators had run roughshod through the league to win the regular-season championship. And they appeared on the verge of adding a conference tournament championship — their first since 2007 — to the trophy case, too.
Ole Miss had other ideas.
Riding the outside shooting of SEC-leading scorer Marshall Henderson and the inside strength of bookend senior forwards Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner, the Rebels captured a thrilling 66-63 victory in the SEC tournament title game here Sunday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena.
In winning just its second SEC tourney title and first since 1981, Ole Miss claimed the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
“So much is made about the NCAA Tournament,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said after the Rebels made the field for the first time since 2002. “I was just glad to get the albatross that is the NCAA Tournament off the neck of our program so people now can exhale and get a new focal point.”
Ole Miss entered the SEC tourney considered by many pundits on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble and on the outside looking in for an at-large berth, should it not run the table and obtain the league’s automatic bid. The Rebels carried a national RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) ranking of 56 into the SEC tourney, including a confounding late-season loss to lowly Mississippi State.
But the Rebels have now won seven of eight games, including SEC tourney wins over Missouri, a team considered an NCAA tourney lock, and Vanderbilt to gain the title game. That was probably good enough to put them into a spot where they were NCAA tourney dancing, win or lose Sunday.
“I felt like coming into Nashville, we obviously had some work to do to achieve our ultimate goal, which was to get to the NCAA Tournament,” said Kennedy, the Rebels’ all-time winningest coach with 151 wins in seven seasons. “Coming into (Sunday’s) game, I felt pretty confident that we’d achieved that just based on what is still in play as it relates to college basketball around the country.”
Ole Miss was led by Holloway with 23 points and 11 rebounds. Henderson, the tourney’s most valuable player, had 23 points, while Buckner added 11.
“It means a lot, man, just for the program,” said Holloway, the 13th-leading scorer in program history. ” . . . I think it’s real good for the program. I’m happy that we got this accomplishment.”
The game was certainly a tale of two halves.
Florida raced fast and furious from the game’s outset and eventually settled into a 38-26 edge by halftime. Ole Miss opened the second half on a 17-5 run and eventually took the lead at 47-46 when Henderson made the first of three free throws after being fouled attempting a 3-pointer.
Florida did have a chance to tie the game at the buzzer, but a 3-point attempt by senior guard Kenny Boynton clanged off the rim. It came after junior guard Scottie Wilbekin missed two free throws, including the last one intentionally, and the ball was deflected to Boynton behind the 3-point stripe.
That exchange came after Holloway hit one free throw and missed another to give the Rebels the final 3-point margin with 8.6 seconds to play. Leading by three, the Rebels decided to foul and send the Gators to the line instead of risking them hitting a 3-pointer to tie the game and force overtime.
Once again, the question rises about Florida’s ability to finish close games. In games decided by 11 points or less this season, the Gators are 0-7.
“The people (are) trying to create this drama like our guys have lost confidence,” Donovan said. “Our guys haven’t lost confidence at all. They dug themselves a hole with our lack of defense. I think what happens, sometimes people try to create drama around a situation that’s not necessarily the truth.
“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.”
Florida might take some solace in not winning the conference tournament championship game. Last season, SEC regular-season champion Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt in the tourney title game, but then went on to win the national championship. But for Boynton, he wanted to win the tourney title after going all four years of his starting career without one.
“I definitely wanted to win this championship,” the senior guard said. “Two years ago, we were in the same position, and we lost in the championship to Kentucky.”
Florida raced fast and furious from the outset and never let up until intermission. A 3-pointer from the corner by senior guard Mike Rosario gave the Gators an early 9-2 lead. Following three straight 3-pointers by freshman guard Mike Frazier off the bench, Florida stretched the early lead to 18-6.
Ole Miss did have a surge midway through the first half when it closed the gap to 21-16 on a follow shot by senior guard Nick Williams. But on three of the Rebels’ next six possessions, Henderson took a bad shot from 3-point range and committed two turnovers, sending momentum back Florida’s way.
Much like he did in Saturday’s semifinal win over Alabama when he scored 11 straight points for the Gators, Boynton scored eight of his team’s last 10 points of the first half. That pushed Florida’s first-half cushion to 14 points before settling into a 38-26 halftime advantage.
“It had been a long time since Ole Miss had been on this stage,” Kennedy said. “And I wanted us to seize it. So, I really think — and you can hear in the seniors — I really think we played with a sense of urgency that is needed to win championships.”