NEW ORLEANS -- What a fitting mascot this Ole Miss basketball team possesses.
Ole Miss uses the moniker of the Rebels, and rebelling is exactly what they're doing this weekend at the New Orleans Arena. They just keep winning games, thumbing their noses at the notion that their NCAA tournament bubble has burst; that a 20-12 record isn't good enough for the Big Dance; that March Madness is no place for a program with just six all-time tournament appearances.
Thanks to some clutch free throw shooting from senior forward Terrance Henry, the Rebels outlasted Tennessee, 77-72, in an exhausting overtime marathon Friday night. By doing so, they advanced to the SEC tournament semifinals for the first time since 2007.
"We haven't been to the semifinals since I've been here, and it's just great to still be playing," said Henry, who finished with 19 points.
It looked for all the world like the Rebels had blown the opportunity to keep playing. In an all-out slugfest, Ole Miss fought to a three-point lead against Tennessee with just nine seconds remaining. Against a team that was shooting below 30 percent on the night, coach Andy Kennedy opted not to foul, and the Volunteers made him pay.
Tennessee guard Skylar McBee tied the game on a 3-pointer -- a bank shot, no less -- with just two seconds remaining to force overtime in a game the Rebels seemed to have won.
"I thought it was over with, man," Henry said. "I was like 'Man, he banked this in? We've got to go to overtime?' But we fought through it."
Added Kennedy: "The banks stay open late in Knoxville, I suppose."
But the Rebels responded with the aplomb you'd expect from a team on a five-game winning streak. Ole Miss went 5-of-7 from the field in overtime, and when McBee forced the issue by draining two more treys, Henry held on from the charity stripe.
"All of a sudden, our backs were really against the wall," Kennedy said. "It's never easy with us, but as I said, I could not be more proud of our guys. They dealt with a lot of adversity in that game."
In the postgame press conference, a reporter asked Henry if he felt he was shooting free throws with an NCAA tournament bid on the line -- a question which clearly took him off guard.
"I don't even know how to answer that," he said. "I just wanted to step up and make free throws. I'm the senior leader on the team, and Coach wants the ball in my hands in the last two minutes of the game. I just did what I was supposed to do."
Perhaps the wording was a little dramatic, but the point remains. As long as the Rebels are still playing basketball, their season can't be over. As every bubble team in the country is aware, if Ole Miss wins two more games, no one can keep them from the NCAA tournament. And as unlikely as that seems, it's not that much crazier than the thought of the Rebels riding a five-game winning streak into the tournament semifinals. Nor would it be more surprising than Henry and Company recovering from a gut-wrenching, game-tying 3-pointer to win an overtime game.
As the conference tournament field continues to shrink, Ole Miss remains as the fly in the SEC ointment. But as Kennedy said following the win, being a feel-good story won't be good enough. The Rebs won't be happy until they're dancing, and for that, there's probably more work to do.
"Being happy is not in my job description -- I've got to get this team prepared," Kennedy said. "I came into the locker room after that win, and it was not a celebratory locker room. And that's a good thing. It was a locker room that said, 'Hey, we did what we were supposed to do. We took care of business.'"