NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Scenes from a season saver:
There was the improbable hero, fresh off scoring the last five points of the game and now intercepting the final desperation pass, then throwing it skyward in celebration at the final horn.
There was volcanic leading man Marshall Henderson, the Mouth of the South, jersey-popping and fist-pumping and circling the court in jubilation.
There was fifth-year senior Nick Williams, running off the court overjoyed that his career could end in a place he'd never been. "We going dancing!" Williams shouted to anyone and everyone. "We going dancing!"
This was the aftermath from Mississippi 64, Missouri 62 – the best game thus far in this Southeastern Conference tournament. It was a game the bubblicious Rebels absolutely had to have to make the NCAA tourney field. And it looked for the longest time like Ole Miss was not going to get it, slipping behind by 14 points with 16:15 remaining.
But the Rebels had the advantage of playing a Missouri team that has a remarkable knack for giving away games late. The Tigers complied again Friday night, in perhaps the most preposterous fashion yet – but credit Ole Miss with boldly and smartly taking advantage with its season on the line.
After Mizzou had frittered away the last of its big lead, being tied at 57 and again at 59 with 1:14 left, boom-or-bust point guard Phil Pressey actually made a clutch play with the game in the balance. A guy who has missed a slew of questionable shots and thrown a slew of bad passes in late-game situations fired in a feathery 3-pointer for a 62-59 lead with 48 seconds to play.
But that merely set the stage for the arrival of unexpected star Millinghaus.
The freshman from Schenectady, N.Y., had played three minutes in Ole Miss' last regular-season game and failed to score. For the season he was averaging 14 minutes of playing time and 5.6 points, but he was forced into action when starting guard Jarvis Summers suffered what coach Andy Kennedy said may be a concussion.
But nobody was thinking about Millinghaus at that point. All eyes were on Henderson – the SEC's leading scorer, leading talker and leading opponent antagonist.
Henderson had scored 27 points on the night, dragging the Rebels back from the brink and into contention. And all 18,192 fans in Bridgestone Arena expected him to take the shot with the Rebels down three.
Henderson, who has never seen a shot he didn't like, was perfectly willing. But when he got the ball to the middle of the court and rose up with it, it seemed like the entire Missouri team converged on him.
So he did the most unnatural thing. He passed it.
The recipient was Murphy Holloway, who then made a second poised pass – from the left side of the lane to the right wing. That's where Millinghaus was standing, wide open. His 3 was perfect, ripping the net and tying the game with 30 seconds left.
That presented Missouri with the last shot – a shot it would never get off, thanks to a jaw-dropping mental error.
The Tigers came out after an Ole Miss timeout confronted with full-court pressure. The Rebels wanted to deny Pressey the ball and make someone else get it upcourt.
That's when inbounder Laurence Bowers and guard Keion Bell conspired to throw the ball away. Bell moved toward Bowers, who threw the ball well over his head, to the dismay of everyone wearing black and gold. In a season sprinkled with forehead-smacking gaffes at crucial moments, this was the Missouri-est of them all.
"We got a gift at the end when they threw us the ball," said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy.
After a timeout, the ball again wound up in the hands of Millinghaus, this time at the top of the key. With about six seconds remaining, he drove right, then slashed past Jabari Brown and lofted a teardrop floater in front of big man Alex Oriakhi. It rippled through the net with 1.1 seconds left for the lead.
"Derrick Millinghaus came in under adverse circumstances … and makes huge plays for us down the stretch," Kennedy said.
Bowers threw the final inbounds pass to the wrong team as well. Millinghaus intercepted the low-percentage bomb downcourt, and the Rebels had the win that probably punched their ticket.
This comes just 13 days after it appeared Ole Miss had botched its bid, losing on the road at truly dreadful Mississippi State. In fact, that looked like it might have been a job-ending loss for Kennedy, who is still searching for his first NCAA bid in his seventh season in Oxford.
"You guys think we've been done," Kennedy said to the media. "These guys aren't done."
Henderson, for one, is so far from done he was still running on adrenaline in the postgame news conference.
"I'm crazy in the head," Henderson said, confirming a league-wide suspicion. "I can go play another game right now. Let's go. I'm ready."
Henderson's postgame exuberance was shared by his teammates, who were obviously thrilled at the great escape and potential NCAA windfall. After dog-piling and running around the court, they found few Tigers waiting around to shake hands after the game.
"Four of them did," Henderson said. "The walk-ons did. And Bowers. That was good sportsmanship. … I'm not going to sit here and say we probably didn't say a couple things to them in the ear when the final buzzer sounded, but you can come shake our hands. We'll shake their hands. You know what, it's whatever. We got the last laugh in the end. We came out on top."
And because of it, Ole Miss should come out of Nashville with its first NCAA tournament bid in 11 years.
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