ATLANTA, Ga. - Marshall Henderson wasn't himself at first…
The Rebels struggled to close out the regular season, however, losing eight times in their final 12 games. The slide began at Alabama in mid-February and only got worse in Athens, Ga., four days later. Ole Miss suffered a one-point defeat at Georgia, the second of four straight losses.
Friday night, the Rebels have a shot at retribution.
Ole Miss, the No. 6 seed in the SEC tournament this week, defeated No. 14 seed Mississippi State, 78-66, Thursday to advance to play the No. 3-seeded Bulldogs at approximately 8:30 p.m. CT in the quarterfinals. Georgia received a two-round bye because it finished as a top-four seed in the conference.
"Definitely ready to play them again," Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson, who scored 24 points in the Feb. 15 loss, said. "They got us (in Athens). We had our chances, had a couple bone-head mistakes that hurt us in the end. We're excited for the opportunity to play them again."
The game was decided by a Charles Mann made free throw with 1.5 seconds remaining.
After a three-point play by Jarvis Summers tied the game at 60-all, Mann dribbled most of the final 30 seconds down before driving and cutting, drawing a foul from Ole Miss freshman Dwight Coleby. Mann missed the first free throw but made the second for the one-point lead.
"It's going to be a rugged game," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. "(Georgia head coach) Mark Fox has done a great job of righting that ship and making the necessary adjustments. His team has figured out who they are and they've embraced hard. It's what I'm trying to get my group to do.
"They've got a good basketball team. It's going to be a hard matchup for us."
Demarco Cox didn't have to wait long for his chance to contribute Thursday night.
With his team in need of a front-court spark, Kennedy called on the 6-foot-8, 276-pound junior not even two minutes into the game. Coleby and junior Aaron Jones earned the start.
"I went to the Mississippi guy early," Kennedy said. "Sometimes we can say ‘Hey, this is a rivalry.' When you're playing, and if you lose, the season's over, which is in essence what we were doing tonight. You would hope that would be all the motivation that you need.
"But sometimes when you're 18 years old and from another continent, you don't quite understand that. I wanted to go with the guys from this continent that understood. I went to Bear early and he responded."
He scored four points, grabbed two rebounds and notched a steal in his first three minutes. For the game, he finished with eight points, the most he's scored against an SEC opponent this season. His six rebounds equaled his most.
The game was just the second in the last 15 that Cox has played at least 15 minutes. He played 15 of his 17 total minutes in the first half.
"Being from Mississippi, playing against Mississippi State, it's an in-state rivalry," Cox said. "If you were to lose to them, it's like you got to hear that for the rest of the summer, or until the next time you play them. You have to go out there and show them we're not going to bow down easy to them."
It Takes Two:
As Henderson and Summers go, so goes Ole Miss.
The duo has accounted for 1,054 of Ole Miss' 2,331 points this season, good for 45 percent. So, when they're off, the Rebels struggle, as they did in the first half against Mississippi State.
They were a combined 6 of 21 for 18 points in the frame, as Mississippi State built a 44-35 lead. The second half, however, was a different story. They both had 12 points, each finishing with 21, including 4 of 9 shooting from 3 for Henderson, who attempted 19 in the game, an SEC tournament record.
"I know in Jarvis' mind and in my mind, when there's about 10 minutes left to go in the second half, for some reason, it's like our sense of urgency goes up a lot more and the focus becomes more effective and whatnot," Henderson said.
Summers reached the 20-point plateau for the first time in four games. He also had six assists and four rebounds.
"We're not going to make every shot," Summers, who was 7 of 17 from the field in the game, said. "We're the leaders on the team, so our confidence has to stay up. We got to make plays either on offense or defense."