NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ole Miss has two items on its résumé that nobody can take away.
Murphy Holloway scored 23 points, and Marshall Henderson had 21 as the Rebels gave coach Andy Kennedy his first NCAA tournament berth by upsetting No. 13 Florida 66-63 on Sunday for the Southeastern Conference tournament title.
“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), who were awarded a No. 12 seed in the West Region, have won seven of eight while 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 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,” senior guard Nick Williams said. “I’m at a loss for words.”
Reginald Buckner added 13 points for Ole Miss, which has won its past two 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 — they’re a No. 3 seed in the South Region — 0-6 in games decided by six points or fewer.
“The people trying to create this drama around a situation, that’s not necessarily true,” 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 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 behind 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,” he 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, making 3 of 11 in the second half. They missed their final five attempts.
Florida came in third nationally holding opponents to 52.3 points a game; Ole Miss is the sixth-best scoring offense at 78.7 points per game.
“The frustrating part for me,” Donovan said, “was just our defense because we clearly have been one of the better defensive teams all year long.”