Henderson’s shooting helps keep Ole Miss alive in SEC tourney

Ole Miss senior guard Marshall Henderson scored 21 points on 19 3-point attempts in an SEC Tournament win against rival Mississippi State on Thursday night.

Paul Abell/Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — Marshall Henderson’s final stand began as most things do with Marshall Henderson. On Ole Miss’ first offensive possession of the SEC Tournament, the 6-foot-2 senior shot the ball. It was an ill-advised, contested 3-point jumper that bounced harmlessly off the rim. One down, 18 to go. Welcome back.

From the moment he led the Rebels onto the Georgia Dome court, Mississippi State boo-birds raining down their greetings as he clapped his hands defiantly, Henderson, the SEC’s preeminent volume scorer who led the program to a surprising conference tournament title just a season ago, welcomed the vitriol that came with his every action. He just kept shooting, and shooting. Even during warmups, he accepted passes from teammates and ballboys and press row personnel (following errant passes) and kept hoisting basketballs toward the rim. He didn’t stop. He rarely does.

In the end, though, there was plenty of deja vu to go around: Henderson helped shoot the Rebels into the next round of the SEC Tournament, knocking out Mississippi State 78-66 behind an unflinching second-half comeback.

Marshall Henderson is undefeated on this stage.

"There’s only one Marshall Henderson, and the guy shoots 19 threes in a game? I mean, come on," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "I’m not sure (Georgia, the Rebels’ next opponent) will shoot 19 (3-pointers) in this tournament."

The nation got an up-close-and-personal look at Henderson, somewhat of a controversial collegiate star given his offseason legal troubles and polarizing on-court behavior, last season as his March hot streak carried Kennedy’s team to an NCAA Tournament berth. The Rebels even won a game there before the magic ran out. But the 2013 SEC Tournament in Nashville was the program’s crowning achievement, and, in some ways, it was like Henderson never left. There he was viciously drumming on the scorer’s table after a deflected pass. There he was drawing a frustration foul and being pulled up by teammates four feet in the air before riling up the pro-Ole Miss crowd. It was almost as if he exited stage right in Nashville, only to reappear stage left in Atlanta, the curtain drawn back once more.

Aside from when he’s hitting shots — he scored all 21 of his points on long-range shots, extending his own SEC record to 65 straight games with a 3-pointer; this doesn’t account for the fact that he’s still a career 35 percent 3-point shooter who takes roughly 12 treys per game — the former Utah transfer is at his best, both offensively and defensively, when his emotions peak. He becomes involved. He works off the ball offensively and he applies pestering defensive pressure (though, admittedly, never his strong suit) at the top of Ole Miss’ half-court trap. That’s Henderson at his best: an unconscious shooter, for better or for worse, and an active all-around presence.

"It got to crunch time and it was time that shots had to be made," Henderson said.

Sometimes it just takes a little while to get going. Like Thursday night.

Mississippi State exploded out of the gate, jumping all over a cold-shooting Rebels team. It was 10-0 before Ole Miss could blink. It was 15-4 at the first TV timeout. It was 23-12, with Mississippi State owning the flow of the game, before Henderson got on the board. But this was all an illusion, or so it seems in retrospect. Once Ole Miss started hitting shots — the obvious antidote to any struggling offense — a switch was flipped. After trailing by as many as 13 ponts in the second half, the Rebels closed on a 40-15 run, sparked by Henderson’s shooting and his deliberate emotion.

"That’s our prime position, being down with, like, halfway through the second half, being down by 10 or something," said Henderson, who finished 7-fo-19 from 3-point range. "But for some reason, I don’t know what it is, but when we’re there, you better watch out. That’s our spot."

Added Kennedy: "My sense of urgency kicks in at about 9 a.m. It takes them another 12 or 13 hours, but eventually the message gets there. … It’s easy to say, ‘You know, we all want to be down 14 with eight to play.’ I don’t, for the record. But if that’s what (Henderson) thinks, then that’s what he thinks. Maybe it will help him again. I hope we don’t have to test that theory again."

Ole Miss has never lost an SEC Tournament game with senior guard Marshall Henderson on the floor.

Henderson wasn’t exactly a solo act on the floor against the Bulldogs, just like big men Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner successfully held down the interior to help enable the winning streak last March. Junior backcourt mate Jarvis Summers, who has been the Rebels best player, poured in 21 points as well, while also collecting four rebounds and dishing out six assists. Reserve big men Demarco Cox, Anthony Perez and Sebastian Saiz helped the Rebels bench outscore its counterpart 26-8.

Still, there’s an overwhelming sense that Kennedy’s program has hitched its wagon to Henderson, for better or for worse. Hell, it worked out just fine last time around. In fact, it has never not worked out. Watching the coach and player good-naturedly interact on the winner’s podium, it’s evident that this is the Henderson that Kennedy will let the world see down the back stretch — he’ll go down swinging; there is no red (or maybe even yellow) light anymore. Consider the following exchange, as both player and coach laughed their way through another interview following a tourney victory:

Henderson: "I just never stop running."

Kennedy: "Or shooting."

Henderson: "Or shooting, so…"

Kennedy: "19 3s, is that an SEC record?"

Moderator: "I think it is in attempts."

Kennedy: "19 attempts. That’s a record. Congratulations."

Or the exchange following a question on if Henderson’s defense — namely a few deflections at the top of that half-court trap and a blatant offensive foul drawn on a Mississippi State guard — in which Kennedy and Henderson seem to have both accepted and moved on from his limitations on that end of the floor. So, Marshall, did your defense spark the comeback?

Henderson: "Maybe some."

Kennedy (sarcastically): "Some. Yeah."

Henderson: "Normally the other way around."

Either way, Marshall Henderson is at it again, pounding his chest, contorting his facial features and holding up three fingers for all to see. He’s shooting in rapid succession again — he really never stopped, having hoisted double-digit 3-pointers in 21 games this season — and if he’s on, who knows what the weekend may hold.

Ole Miss is back to its old March tricks of comebacks and winning games in unlikely fashion. How many slow starts can the Rebels sustain this time around? How far can a streaky offense and a mediocre defense carry the tourney’s No. 6 seed; could it be all the way to another NCAA bid? And the ultimate inquiry for this team: Just how many points does Marshall Henderson have up his sleeve for Andy Kennedy this time around?

The attempts, at this point, are simply a given.