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February 16, 2013

McCready: Rebels rally to escape disaster

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Courtesy XOS Digital

OXFORD, Miss. -- Ole Miss was down eight with less than four minutes left Saturday night.

The Rebels appeared dead.

So did, if we're being honest here, their NCAA tournament hopes.

Ole Miss, losers of four of its last five games entering Saturday's home date with Georgia, couldn't afford a loss to the Bulldogs. The Rebels' bleeding would have been profuse, the wound almost certainly mortal. The fans who packed Tad Smith Coliseum the last seven games would have begun to defect, many to message boards where they would have joined the vocal minority wanting Andy Kennedy's tenure in Oxford to end.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's 3-pointer with 3:51 left seemed to set all of that in motion. It certainly felt like a dagger.

"It was as if we had flat-lined and they'd brought out the paddles," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "I was just imploring them in that huddle to get some stops."

Then Marshall Henderson happened.

The Rebels' hyperactive, emotionally-charged shooting guard scored the next 10 points and helped guide Ole Miss to overtime, a period his club dominated to clinch an 84-74 win.

"He's our playmaker," Kennedy said, "not only with his ability to score but also off the ball as well. He was huge for us. …Once we got the game back even, I felt like we had more swagger defensively."

Henderson, who finished with a game-high 25 points, made his way to the media room Saturday night but not for interviews.

"It's all the same," Henderson said. "It's Saturday night. I'm out."

Then he smiled big, threw his hands up and merrily skipped down the hallway toward wherever Henderson goes on Saturday nights after wins.

Goodness knows, Ole Miss needed a win Saturday night. Kennedy said the Rebels might have needed a win just like the one they got - one that consumed fingernails and increased Pepto-Bismol consumption.

"It jolted us back to life," Kennedy said. "There was energy in the locker room. It wasn't like it was the last time we won. When we beat (Mississippi) State (on Feb. 6), it was ho-hum and we weren't feeling real good about the way we played. Those guys had energy and I think this was the impetus we need to finish the season strong."

Ole Miss (19-6 overall, 8-4 in the Southeastern Conference) has the chops to win the rest of its league games. The Rebels travel to South Carolina (3-9 in league play) on Wednesday and host Auburn (3-9) Saturday in Oxford. Ole Miss' final four games include home dates against Texas A&M and Alabama and road trips to Mississippi State and LSU. Only the Crimson Tide (9-3) has a better league record than the Rebels at this point.

What the Rebels had lacked after the last three weeks was confidence.

"It's hard sometimes for me to realize it because I am right in the middle of the trenches every day, but I'm still dealing with young guys, man - kids, ultimately," Kennedy said. "You'd be amazed at how quickly confidence wanes. I didn't think we were playing with much confidence. It's almost as is we were trying to win the game but playing not to lose.

"I really haven't sensed much panic. Sometimes I don't think that's a good thing. A sense of urgency is good for a team."

The Rebels found that sense of urgency Saturday night. It happened late, sure, but it happened all the same. Ole Miss was on the brink of disaster but found a way to escape.

Four weeks from now, if the Rebels can build from it, they'll look back on that final 3:51 of regulation as the period that saved their season.


Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy meets with the media following the Rebels' overtime win over Georgia Saturday night.


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