NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ole Miss can breathe much easier: It’s on the cusp of coach Andy Kennedy’s first NCAA tournament berth in his seventh season.
Now the Rebels are setting their sights on a Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament title first.
Marshall Henderson scored 23 points as Ole Miss beat Vanderbilt 64-52 on Saturday in the semifinals, putting the Rebels in the title game for the first time since 2001.
“We know we made the NCAA tournament now,” Henderson said. “If we didn’t, that would the biggest snub ever. ... We know we made it. We’re in the championship. We might as well win it and get us a fat ring.”
The third-seeded Rebels (25-8) came here needing wins to improve their résumé and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. Now they will play No. 13 Florida in Sunday’s championship game, where the winner advances to the NCAA tournament automatically.
Kennedy ticked off the Rebels’ record and 14 SEC wins, including two here in Nashville, while pointing out not many teams aren’t playing.
“So I feel pretty confident about our opportunity to get the albatross from around the neck for this program as it relates to the NCAA tournament,” he said.
Senior Reginald Buckner also had 15 points, and senior Murphy Holloway added 12 for Ole Miss. The Rebels have won six of seven.
“There’s very few times in your life that you have a chance to compete for a championship, so that’s where I want their focus to be,” Kennedy said. “I want them to play free and loose and understanding that on Sunday that we have the makings of a party.”
No. 10 seed Vanderbilt (16-17), the defending tournament champion, lost for only the second time in eight games. Kedren Johnson had a team-high 12 points.
Kennedy, the Rebels’ winningest coach, has at least 20 victories in four straight seasons and became the fifth SEC coach to win 20 in six of his first seven seasons. But another missed NCAA tournament could have jeopardized his job security.
“I’m not a bracketology fan, but I would assume that they’re safely in the NCAA tournament,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “And they should be, in my opinion.”
The Rebels played without point guard Jarvis Summers, who hit his head hard in Friday night’s win against Missouri. He is day-to-day with a concussion. Not that they needed Summers as they wore down Vanderbilt, with the Commodores playing their third game in as many days along with going to class the past two days.
“We had two or three guys that were just a quart low on energy,” Stallings said. “It wasn’t because they wanted to be. It wasn’t because they chose to be. They just didn’t have the same kind of pep in their step that they’d had in days past.”
Ole Miss outshot Vandy 44 percent (22 of 50) to 33.9 percent (19 of 56) as the Commodores went a chilly 6 of 30 behind the arc. The Rebels also finished with a 41-36 edge on the boards.
Ole Miss didn’t grab its first lead until the opening minute of the second half, but the Rebels took control with a 15-2 run a few minutes later.