Theirs for the Taking

Henderson had 11 points against Missouri

There are precious few resume-building games left on the schedule for Ole Miss, what with the Southeastern Conference in a down year.


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However, Saturday night, against No. 10 Missouri, was one of those games.

The Rebels responded in big way, claiming a 64-49 win in front of 9,173 fans, announced as the 11th largest crowd in school history, and the first sellout since 2010.

"We don't control when we play or who we play, we've just got to play," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. "Right out of the chute, we got challenged. We just did what we're supposed to do: we protected home floor. If you have any aspirations of playing meaningful basketball in March, that's what you have to do."

Ole Miss is well on its way.

This was a game critics of Andy Kennedy would point to in previous seasons; the season-defining game, the game that could help propel Ole Miss to an NCAA tournament bid. The Rebels haven't reached the "Big Dance" since 2002.

These games, they'd say, he couldn't win with regularity. He entered Saturday night with his teams boasting a 6-19 record against top-25 teams in his Ole Miss career. The Rebels were 1-4 in such games last season. In its history, Ole Miss was 15-108 against top-10 teams, with its last win coming over Kentucky in 2010-11.


Murphy Holloway
Bruce Newman

Add one more to the win column.

On this night, Ole Miss was as good as it's been all year. Yes, Missouri was far from full strength. The Tigers were missing Lawrence Bowers, their leading scorer. Even still, the Rebels were in control of the game from start to finish, opening with a 5-0 lead and never looking back, their defense causing fits for the Tigers.

Ole Miss never trailed against Missouri.

"Coach Kennedy, good guy. He's doing a good job here," senior forward Murphy Holloway, who led the team in scoring with 22 points, while adding eight rebounds, said. "I feel like if we didn't reach a certain point, they might try to get rid of my coach. We're going to do it. That man's going to be here for a while."

Tonight's win followed up an important road win at Tennessee on Wednesday. After a strong, if unspectacular, 11-2 non-conference record, the Rebels have hit the ground running in conference play, finding success with inspired basketball when it matters.

Because the next month will define Ole Miss. Just look at the schedule.

In the next nine games, Ole Miss has road trips to Vanderbilt, Florida, Missouri and Texas A&M. Mixed in are home tilts against Kentucky and Arkansas. The back end of the schedule, though, is littered with winnable games, games Ole Miss is sure to be favored in.

Georgia. South Carolina. Auburn. Mississippi State. You get my point.

If Ole Miss gets through the next nine with a winning record, an NCAA tournament bid will be there for the taking. Opening 2-0, their first 2-0 SEC start since 2005-06, allows the Rebels to control their destiny. Right now, they're in the tournament. It's on them to play themselves out.

"It gives us a lot of confidence," Holloway said of the 2-0 start. "You feel like you can play with anybody. All the work you put in the off-season, it just lets you know coach and them weren't just talking. It's actually paying off."

Ole Miss jumped almost 20 points in the RPI -- from 63 to 48 --with its win at Tennessee. That number will undoubtedly jump again, likely into the 30s, with the win against top-10 Missouri.

The resume is strong enough. Take care of business against lesser teams, while staying competitive against comparable league foes, and the Rebels are in. Good news for this team, Ole Miss has always played behind in conference play. Never before had the Rebels won their first league game under Kennedy. That changed Wednesday. Three days later, they were beating Missouri.

"If we play our ‘A' game," sophomore point guard Jarvis Summers said, "we can play with anybody. We've got to stick together."


Jarvis Summers
USA TODAY images

They're out in front now; ahead of schedule, if you will. This is the best team Kennedy has ever had, and 2012-13 is the best opportunity any of his teams have had to make the NCAA tournament. They've positioned themselves to make a run in an up-in-the-air SEC West.

More than anything, and after some fans attempted to write them off after losses to Middle Tennessee State and Indiana State, Ole Miss is playing meaningful basketball. The games matter. Forget the National Invitation Tournament. With where Ole Miss sits, it's NCAA tournament or bust.

"I've been proud of this group. We've grown by leaps and bounds, probably in the last three, four weeks," Kennedy said. "Our seniors, most especially, have taken ownership. They understand the clock is ticking and they need to take advantage of these opportunities. That's what they've done."

Ole Miss needs at least 11 wins in the SEC to make the tournament. Twelve, they're a lock. In mid-January, with plenty of basketball left to play, this is a tournament team.

Kennedy and players believe, too.

"At the end of the day, we're all we got," Holloway said. "Stay together. We had two losses, but we found ourselves as a team. Keep it going."





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