Friday March 13th, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Andy Kennedy didn’t have to sugarcoat it. After perhaps the most devastating loss of his season, the Ole Miss coach was blunt when asked if his Rebels were an NCAA tournament team.

“We have now taken destiny out of our own hands,” Kennedy said. “So now we’ll just have to wait and see what the other teams that are in the equation have done.”

Indeed, the Rebels are no longer in control of their destiny thanks to an exciting but perhaps damning day of basketball at the SEC tournament. Ole Miss and Texas A&M ended their short stay in Nashville with second-round losses, which might ultimately kill both teams’ NCAA hopes. The sixth-seeded Rebels suffered a wild, deflating loss to 11th-seeded South Carolina only hours after No. 5 Texas A&M dropped a contest to No. 13 Auburn. The upsets marked the first time since the SEC’s expansion that two Day 1 winners advanced to the quarterfinals. But the flip side is an unfortunate truth for the SEC: The league might’ve lost two bids in the NCAA tournament in the process.

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Ole Miss’s fate is the early leader in the clubhouse for most heartbreaking loss of the SEC tournament. Kennedy’s squad played far below its potential against South Carolina, turning the ball over 21 times and shooting 30 percent from the field. But the Rebels managed to storm back from a 10-point first half deficit, and with 11 seconds to play, they found themselves with the ball down 57-54.

Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody pulled up for the would-be game-winner before finding an open Jarvis Summers in the corner. With the clock ticking down, Summers nailed a three-pointer and picked up a foul by South Carolina’s Duane Moody. Summer hit the free throw, and just like that, Ole Miss looked like it’d stolen a win thanks to a four-point swing.

But the Gamecocks weren’t ready to go home. With 3.3 seconds left, senior Tyrone Johnson caught the inbounds pass and pulled up for a running three-pointer. Exactly what Ole Miss would have wanted right? Well, right up until LaDarius White fouled Johnson on the shot. With veteran poise, Johnson stepped up and calmly hit two free throws to ice the game. The third shot, which also went in, only served as icing on the cake.

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Did White truly foul Johnson at the end? “It really doesn’t matter what I think,” Kennedy said.

Regardless, now Ole Miss must play the waiting game. It ventured to Nashville with a rather unusual resume, having won many of its important games away from home. Wins over Arkansas, Oregon and Cincinnati away from Oxford are impressive, but home losses to the likes of Western Kentucky and Charleston Southern are warts on the face of the Rebels’s tourney argument. In reality, Ole Miss needed to at least get past South Carolina to feel safer about its postseason prospects. That disappointment was palpable for players like Johnson, who wasn’t ready to say if his team deserved an NCAA bid.

“I really don’t feel like we’ve done enough,” Johnson said, “but if we do make it, I feel like we banged our way in.”

Fans in College Station are wondering the same thing about their team’s future. Texas A&M entered the SEC tournament with little wiggle room on its resume, and a win over LSU in the quarterfinals might’ve been enough to punch the Aggies’ NCAA ticket. But they first had to get past 13-seed Auburn in the second round to reach LSU. Losing to coach Bruce Pearl’s team was out of the question for a roster trying to prove its NCAA worth.

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Texas A&M looked like it’d stay alive for another day through one half. It streaked out to a 33-23 halftime lead over the Tigers. But Auburn turned on the jets in the second half, using a 16-1 run to take a 39-34 lead with 16 minutes to play. The Aggies’ ultimately gave up 43 points after halftime, committing 19 total turnovers in the process.

“I’m really disappointed that we didn’t play like we’re capable of playing,” Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy said. “For whatever reason, our energy level, it wasn’t where it needed to be.”

Not long ago, the Aggies’ NCAA hopes were bright. A win over South Carolina on Feb. 21 gave the program a 10-4 league record and 19-7 overall. But Texas A&M folded down the stretch. Thursday’s loss was its fourth in five games and its third in a row to feature a second-half meltdown. It didn’t help that A&M’s leading scorer, guard Daniel House, missed his second consecutive game on Thursday with a sprained left foot.

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The Aggies don’t live in a vacuum. They knew their NCAA hopes hung in the balance during their short stay in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. But Kennedy still seemed a bit perplexed as he spoke to reporters after the loss. He expected something more from his leaders.

“The four upperclassmen had problems dealing with the pressure,” Kennedy said. “Daniel House, he’s our go-to guy, he’s a big moment guy, he’s handled that pressure for us for the most part throughout the year. We really needed somebody else to step up.”

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Now Texas A&M needs help from other bubble teams to have a snowball’s chance at the Big Dance. Right now its best win is actually two wins against LSU. Still, the Aggies have largely avoided bad losses; their biggest miscues came in two losses to Alabama and Thursday’s result against Auburn. But their worst loss came at perhaps the worst time. The NIT is suddenly Texas A&M’s most likely destination.

That doom-and-gloom forecast doesn’t sit well with Frank Martin, however. The South Carolina coach said a single tournament game shouldn’t define the fate of Ole Miss and Texas A&M. The Rebels, in particular, proved plenty to Martin on Thursday, when they nearly ended the Gamecocks’ season.

“They deserve to be in that tournament, just like Texas A&M, just like LSU,” Martin said. “And they should be in it, and not only should they be in it, they’re teams that will have success in that tournament.”

Will the Selection Committee agree? At this point, thanks to unfortunate losses, all Ole Miss and Texas A&M can do is wait and see.

 

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