Ole Miss win, Bama loss provides clarity in SEC bubble situation

Marshall Henderson expects tight defense from Florida on Sunday. (USATSI) 

Running multiple screens, baseline rollers, even triple screens, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy did everything humanly possible to free up Marshall Henderson for open looks in the Rebels’ 78-64 loss to Florida on Feb. 2.

Despite every effort from Florida’s perimeter defenders to place a hand in Henderson’s face, the quick-triggered, sharpshooter drained 7 of 11 attempts from 3-point range for a game-high 25 points. In Sunday’s finals of the SEC tournament, the teams will meet again.

The Rebels advanced with a 64-52 win over Vanderbilt, while the Gators damaged Alabama’s NCAA tournament hopes with a 61-51 victory in the opener on Saturday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. With arguably five teams from the conference on the bubble heading into the five-day event, the SEC Tournament has been one of the most hotly-contested conference tournaments throughout the country.

Employing stifling defense with its 2-3 zone, the Rebels slowed the Commodores during two extended stretches that proved critical in the victory. After falling behind 22-14 with 7:53 left in the first half, the Rebels held the Commodores to eight points during a 12-minute stretch bridging both halves. Then, following a dunk by Vanderbilt forward Sheldon Jeter with 12:58 left, Ole Miss (25-8) went on an 11-0 run to take a commanding 45-36 lead. Kennedy credited forward Reginald Buckner’s presence in their zone from dissuading the Commodores to put up short attempts inside the paint.

“When Reg is active in the middle of a zone we’re pretty good because if a team gets any dribble penetration they know they’ve got the best shot blocker in the history of our program standing there,” Kennedy said. “It allows our guards to be more active.”

Florida (26-6) also used a significant run to shift momentum in its victory. Trailing 37-27 at the first official TV timeout of the second half, the Gators went on a 15-0 run to take the lead for good. Embattled Florida point guard Kenny Boynton led the charge with 11 straight points during the stretch. The Gators’ senior hit a left-handed runner in transition to give his team a 38-37 lead, then followed it up with a jumper off the window to extend it to three.

Boynton, a second-team All-SEC guard, went scoreless in the first half after finishing 1 of 7 for two points in the Gators’ win on Friday over LSU. The Gators missed nine layups in the first half, including one by Boynton. At halftime, Florida coach Billy Donovan lit into his team’s veteran leader. 

“The reason I went after him is I’ve seen him over his career do some remarkable things and I’ve seen him when he’s been in slumps,” Donovan said. “I just told him ‘you’re a senior in college, it’s time to fight. You’ve always fought.' I said 'I’ve got great confidence in you but right now I don’t see that fight and that look on your face.’”

Donovan’s fiery speech may be the turning point for a team that has lost four games after an 18-2 start.

“He challenged me to play with confidence,” Boynton said. “I tried to step up to it.”

Expect a low scoring game in Sunday’s final. The Rebels have only allowed 21 field goals over their last 48 minutes of game action. On Saturday, a heavy-legged Vanderbilt team, playing their third game in three days, shot 2 of 16 from beyond-the-arc in the second half. Florida, meanwhile, has held both opponents in Nashville under 60 points. The Gators are 23-0 this season when opponents fail to reach 60.

Florida will likely use junior guard Scottie Wilbekin on Henderson in halfcourt situations. Wilbekin said Henderson releases his shot as quickly as former Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins and former Arkansas guard Rotnei Clark -- two other dead-eye, long-range shooters. The only difference, Wilbekin added, is that Henderson will shoot more often.

“If you’re in his face he’ll still line up and take it,” Wilbekin said. “He can still make it. You just have to stay in his jersey and stay connected to him the whole time.”

Henderson, who led Ole Miss on Saturday with 23 points, is out to prove he’s more than a shooter. In the waning seconds against Vanderbilt, the Rebels’ guard drew a standing ovation from the Ole Miss contingent for a dribbling display that would have made Pete Maravich proud. Henderson circled Commodores' players three times on the possession and dribbled around what he estimated “20 defenders or so,” before drawing a foul.

“When I got it, I just wanted to keep on going and see who was going to stop me,” Henderson said.

The Gators are bidding for their first SEC tournament title since 2007, while Ole Miss will look to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. The Rebels’ 25 wins are the most by an Ole Miss team since 2000-2001 when they reached the Sweet 16.

“I’m happy for Andy and his program,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “I would assume they’re safely in the NCAA tournament.”

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