Murphy Holloway scored 23 points and Marshall Henderson had 21 as the Rebels gave coach Andy Kennedy his first NCAA tournament berth by upsetting 13th-ranked Florida 66-63 on Sunday for the Southeastern Conference tournament championship.
“So much is made about the NCAA tournament,” Kennedy said. “I was just glad to get the albatross that is the NCAA tournament off the neck of our program so people can now exhale and get a new focal point.”
The Rebels (26-8) have won seven of eight, grabbing their first tournament title since 1981 and their second ever. Even though they thought reaching this game for the first time since 2001 probably clinched their seventh NCAA bid in Kennedy’s seventh season as coach, the Rebels wanted the SEC championship, too.
“We worked so hard to get to this point, and it just feels so good to celebrate with the guys in the locker room,” Rebels senior guard Nick Williams said. “I don’t know, man. I’m at a loss for words.”
Reginald Buckner added 13 points for Ole Miss, which won two straight without point guard Jarvis Summers. The sophomore suffered a concussion in Friday night’s 64-62 win over Missouri. That forced Kennedy to use Ladarius White, while Henderson and freshman Derrick Millinghaus also handled the ball.
“Can you imagine going into a game of this magnitude with a backup quarterback?” Kennedy said. “And that’s what this team had to do.”
Florida (26-7) hasn’t won this tournament since wrapping up a three-peat in 2007, and the Gators lost to Kentucky in this game two years go. The SEC regular season champs still haven’t won a game by fewer than 10 points this season. They go into the NCAA tournament 0-6 in games decided by six points or less.
“The people trying to create this drama around a situation that’s not necessarily true,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “Our guys haven’t lost confidence at all. They dug themselves a hole with our lack of defense. ... The truth of the matter is we were up 12 and allowed Ole Miss to shoot 53 percent in the second half and we shot 29 percent.”
The Gators had a final chance to force overtime. Scottie Wilbekin missed two free throws with 4.2 seconds left, and Kenny Boynton’s last-gasp 3 glanced off the rim after he took a step back to make sure he was over the line.
“I kind of rushed it because I was trying to back up and make sure it was a 3-point shot before time ran out,” Boynton said.
Mike Rosario had 18 points and Boynton added 13 for the Gators.
Ole Miss outshot the regular season champs 47.4 percent (27-of-57) compared to 37.3 percent (22-of-59) and outrebounded them 37-34. That gave the Rebels an 11-5 edge on second-chance points. The Gators struggled at the free-throw line, going 3-of-11 in the second half. They missed their final five attempts over the last 4:19.
Florida came in third nationally holding opponents to 52.3 points a game, while Ole Miss is the sixth-best scoring offense in the country with 78.7 points a game.
“The frustrating part for me was just our defense because we clearly have been one of the better defensive teams all year long,” Donovan said.
Florida led 38-26 at halftime after hitting seven of 14 3-pointers, taking advantage of Henderson just 1-of-6 from the floor with three points.
The Rebels opened the second half on a 10-3 run to get back into the game. The Gators missed eight of their first 10 shots in the half, and Henderson found Buckner for a dunk with 13:39 left that tied it up for the first time at 43. The teams swapped the lead with the Gators using seven straight points to go up 53-52 on a 3-pointer by Murphy.
Then Williams hit a jumper, Henderson scored on a driving layup, and Henderson knocked down another 3 off a miss by Williams when Buckner poked the ball out to the feisty guard, putting Ole Miss up 59-53 with 7:15 left. Henderson celebrated by doing the gator chomp at Florida fans before heading to the bench for a timeout.
Henderson was named the tournament MVP after being snubbed by league coaches for the All-SEC first team earlier in the week.
“They didn’t win this tournament. We did,” Henderson said. “We went in with a chip on our shoulder. Maybe they’ll be smarter next year.”
The Gators got within two points twice down the stretch, the last at 65-63 when Rosario drove to the basket for a layup with 35.4 seconds left. Casey Prather stole the ball from Henderson with 22.3 seconds left, and Donovan called a timeout.
Erik Murphy missed an 8-foot jump hook over Buckner with less than 10 seconds left, and Holloway grabbed his 10th rebound and was fouled immediately. He hit a free throw with 8.6 seconds remaining for the final margin setting up the Gators’ last chance.
“I was just like, ‘Man, just make one. Just make one just in case they hit a 3 we can go into overtime,’” Holloway recalled. “Me and my boy, Reg, been struggling, ever since we got here, we’ve been struggling. I knew I had to step up. So I stepped up. I made one.”