NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The SEC bubble teams had been dropping like flies on Friday.
Tennessee fell flat on its face and so did Kentucky, both double-digit losses that were major blows to their respective NCAA tournament hopes.
With just more than 13 minutes to play in the final SEC tournament game of the day at Bridgestone Arena, Ole Miss found itself in a similar predicament.
The Rebels were down 13 points to Missouri, and the NIT was calling their name.
“We’ve been down so many times this season, but we fight back. That’s what we do,” Ole Miss junior guard Marshall Henderson said. “We’re not dumb. We watched ESPN all day and saw all those other teams lose.
“We were like, ‘Dang, let’s just come here and take what was ours.'"
Henderson, the SEC’s pre-eminent lightning rod, poured in a game-high 27 points for the Rebels. But it was freshman guard Derrick Millinghaus who was the hero. His floater in the lane with 1.1 seconds to play capped a furious Ole Miss rally and lifted the Rebels to an emotional 64-62 victory over the Tigers.
“He made a New York point guard play, splitting those defenders and floating it above 6-[foot-]9 guys trying to swat it out clear to the bleachers,” said Henderson, who dumped the ball off to Millinghaus after being doubled on the play.
The Ole Miss players, with Henderson leading the way, celebrated like they’d just won the NCAA tournament and piled on top of Millinghaus at center court. Henderson even jumped up on the scorer’s table and whooped it up "Hotty Toddy" style with the Ole Miss fans.
“I play with that emotion all the time, but we wanted that game,” Henderson said. “We knew that was a huge game for us. That was a huge message we sent out to the rest of the country.”
Obviously, the only guarantee will be if the Rebels (24-8) can win two more games and gain the automatic NCAA bid by winning the SEC tournament. Still, it’s difficult to see them not getting an at-large bid at this point regardless of what happens in Nashville the next two days. They face Vanderbilt on Saturday in the semifinals.
In his latest projection, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Ole Miss as one of the “last four in.” The Rebels have won five of their past six games.
“I know the NCAA tournament doesn’t officially start until next [Tuesday], but we just gave you a precursor,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “That was a first-round NCAA game between two NCAA tournament teams.”
Millinghaus was filling in for starting guard Jarvis Summers, who suffered what Ole Miss officials think was a concussion during the game. Millinghaus’ game winner wasn’t his only big shot. He drained a 3-pointer with 31 seconds to play to tie the game at 62-62 after Phil Pressey had put Missouri ahead with a 3-pointer just seconds earlier.
Millinghaus scored all 11 of his points in the final 6½ minutes of the game.
“I just wanted to win. That’s what I wanted to do,” Millinghaus said.
Missouri (23-10) again found a way to lose a game away from home, which has been a recurring theme for the Tigers this season. They made just two baskets in the final 8:49.
No play, though, was any more costly for Missouri than an errant inbounds pass by Laurence Bowers, giving the ball back to Ole Miss with 27 seconds remaining and setting the stage for Millinghaus’ game winner.
“We were on death row, and in order to get off death row, you’ve got to make a play,” Kennedy said. “We were fortunate to make one at the end.”
Henderson said the Rebels aren’t taking anything for granted and want to take the decision out of the selection committee’s hands. Ole Miss last went to the NCAA tournament in 2002 and has never been under Kennedy despite winning 20 or more games six times.
“We’re still not done,” Henderson said. “There are no guarantees. We’re Ole Miss. Everyone likes to hate on Ole Miss. We know it’s difficult at Ole Miss to get something done, so we need to come back in here tomorrow and play with the same energy and same aggression.”
That’s never a problem for Henderson, who was still screaming in the hallways as he strolled to the postgame news conference. He never quits talking on the court, either, and revels in taunting fans and players.
A couple of different times Friday he was warned by officials, and Missouri assistant coaches were incensed when he gestured to the Tigers bench heading to a timeout.
“I’m a manipulator of sorts and love messing with people’s minds,” said Henderson, who has scored 20 or more points 16 times this season. “It’s pretty funny to mess with people like that. It’s a freakin’ game, and people take it so seriously. It’s funny for a little white guy like me to come around and talk trash to people in the stands.”
He was still chirping after the game -- and accused most of the Missouri players of not shaking the Ole Miss players’ hands.
“We didn’t expect it. We hate each other,” Henderson said. “I think we just created a really big rivalry in the SEC between Ole Miss and Missouri. That’s good.”