The Ole Miss Rebels, led by Marshall Henderson and Murphy Holloway, simply keep finding ways to win ball games that they have no reason even being in for one reason or another.
Who knows, maybe Ole Miss Head Coach Andy Kennedy just keeps reciting late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis' signature line, "Just win, baby," when he feels the Rebels need the motivation?
Whatever Kennedy is telling his No. 16 Ole Miss Rebels, it's working, and working very well.
Prior to entering Southeastern Conference (SEC) play, Ole Miss compiled a respectable record of 12-2. The Rebels only lost two games in non-conference play, losing by three points on the road at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) and dropping its only other loss by two points in overtime to Indiana State University (ISU) at the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.
It should be noted that both MTSU (currently 17-4) and ISU (currently 12-7) made appearances in the 2011 NCAA tournament. While Ole Miss would like to be undefeated right now, its two losses are far from bad on a tournament resume come early March.
Fast forward to the start of SEC play and the Rebels are now 6-0 in the conference (17-2 overall), off to their best start in school history.
How has Ole Miss achieved the 6-0 SEC start?
Jan. 9 @ Tennessee (W, 92-74)
Jan. 12 # 10 Missouri (W, 64-49)
Jan. 15 @ Vanderbilt (W, 89-79 OT)
Jan. 19 Arkansas (W, 76-64)
Jan. 24 Tennessee (W, 62-56)
Jan. 26 @ Auburn (W, 63-61)
While the 6-0 start is certainly impressive for the Rebels, more telling is the manner in which Kennedy's club has won. They have found ways to win games they had no business even being in.
Case One: @ Vanderbilt on Jan. 15
In the Jan. 15 game in Nashville, Tenn., against Vanderbilt, a struggling Rebel defense yielded 17, yes 17, three-point baskets to the Commodores. In fact, the 17 three-pointers made by Vandy set a Memorial Gym record, a gym that has been hosting basketball games since 1952.
Despite struggling nearly the whole game against the young Vanderbilt squad, Rebel PG Marshall Henderson got a hot hand in the second half to help bring the Rebels to within striking distance as the game neared an end.
Not only did he help shrink the Vanderbilt lead, but he nailed a 35-foot three-point heave as time expired to give Ole Miss a new life in overtime.
Ole Miss dominated the game in overtime, outscoring the Commodores 11-1, to improve to 3-0 in league play behind Henderson's 26 points. Given second life, the Rebels simply knew how to take care of business in overtime.
Case Two: Tennessee on Jan. 24
Taking the court at Tad Smith Coliseum as a ranked team in front of a nationally-televised audience on ESPN2 commentated by Rece Davis and Bob Knight, Kennedy's team couldn't have been more confident in their current level of play. However, that changed rather quickly as the Tennessee Volunteers surged after the opening tip.
Ole Miss couldn't buy a basket the entire first half of the game, going 4-of-23 (17.4 percent) from the field, including eight missed three-point attempts. It was hard to believe how cold the Rebels were in the first half; after all, they came into the game riding a seven game win streak.
However, things began to change for the Rebels close to the midpoint of the second half. The streaky, yet gutsy Henderson suddenly caught fire from behind the three-point arc, finishing with six three-point baskets and 28 points to lead the Rebels to a come-from-behind victory at home.
It's often said, "Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games."
Well, Marshall Henderson did just that for the Ole Miss Rebels in the second half against Tennessee, just as he did in the second half earlier this year on the road in Nashville.
Case Three: @ Auburn on Jan 26
Trailing 33-28 just before time expired in the first half, Ole Miss' Aaron Jones rattled in a lengthy three-point attempt for the Rebels to bring Ole Miss to within two of the Auburn Tigers at the half.
Similar to the sluggish start like they had against Tennessee in Oxford, Ole Miss played anything but their best in the first half at Auburn. However, the afore mentioned basket by Jones just before half seemed to be a sign of good things to come for the Rebels in the second half against the Tigers.
Scraping and clawing their way back against a simply inferior Auburn team, Ole Miss found the lead and managed to keep it for most of the second half, albeit a close one. In a game where the Rebels only managed to go a measly 2-15 from the free throw line before Marshall Henderson sank two free throws to seal the Rebel victory in the final minutes, once again Ole Miss simply found a way to win.
The Auburn victory provided yet another mental edge to a gritty Ole Miss team as the Rebels inch their way closer and closer to postseason tournaments.
With 12 SEC games remaining for the Rebels before the SEC Basketball Tournament in Nashville, I wouldn't bet against Henderson and the Rebels another game this year.
However, the Rebels are now in the midst of a three game conference stretch in a matter of six days as they played at Auburn (Saturday, Jan. 26), play at home against Kentucky (Tuesday, Jan. 29), and finally take to the road against a premier No. 4 Florida Gator team (Saturday, Feb. 2) to end the grueling stretch.
It will be a grueling stretch for Ole Miss, but it will prepare them for a very similar rapid three- to four-game outing in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament.
In closing, Ole Miss has shown that they have a proclivity towards dramatic, victorious finishes in 2013.
That's alright though, as each of these types of games builds more team chemistry and character as postseason play nears in early March.
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