NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Only twice since the conference expanded to 14 teams has the No. 14 seed advanced in the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament. Both times it has been Ole Miss.
The Rebels prevailed, 48-43, over No. 11 seed Florida in a low-scoring, defensive slugfest that went down to the wire in the First Round of the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday afternoon - the lowest-scoring win at Ole Miss since Jan. 25, 1984 (46-45, vs. Auburn). The win is the first in the tournament for Ole Miss since that 2013-14 Rebel team took down Arkansas as the No. 14 seed.
"It was a great team effort," said Ole Miss head coach Matt Insell. "It was good to get that one back. We gave one away, we felt like, down at Florida (on Jan. 21) and that was a kind of a spiral of where our season has been. We found a way to get a win here and tough one out. I've been challenging our players to get better defensively each and every day."
Defense was the main priority for both squads as scoring was at a premium at Bridgestone Arena today. Both teams combined for a 27.8 percent clip from the field and a 25.4 percent mark from three, with both teams shooting under 30 percent in at least two quarters.
That offensive drought was there right from the beginning, with the first quarter yielding just 17 total points at a 9-6 Rebel advantage. Ole Miss picked it up offensively in the second quarter. After falling behind five in the opening minutes (Florida's largest lead of the game), the Rebels ripped off a 15-3 run to close the quarter - which included a 9-0 run - to take a 26-19 lead into the break.
Ole Miss extended to a 13-point lead in the third quarter, but the defenses regained control, both forcing the other into lengthy scoring and field goal droughts to make it a 36-27 game entering the final quarter.
The fourth appeared to have the makings of déjà vu for the Rebels, who had witnessed Florida erase a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter in Gainesville on Jan. 21 - using a 17-0 run to start the fourth to snare a 61-60 victory over Ole Miss. The Gators were able to erase that to six by 7:15 in the fourth today, setting up a tight finish that revolved primarily around the free throw line.
The Gators were able to get as close as four a handful of times down the stretch, but Ole Miss (who finished the day 15-of-22 from the free throw line) was able to sink those free throws and keep Florida at bay for the win.
Today's win gives Ole Miss the season series vs. Florida, with all three games being close contests. On Jan. 7 at home, the Rebels prevailed 78-75 in double overtime (the first OT game in 96 attempts for Ole Miss) before falling in the aforementioned 61-60 game at Florida on Jan. 21.
"We came in here knowing that it was going to be a fight," said junior Shelby Gibson. "That really weighed on our hearts. We didn't want it to be over. Defense led, but heart and hard work also really helped us win this battle against Florida."
"We knew it was going to be pretty competitive," said junior Madinah Muhammad. "This is our last game considering everybody gets one game, so you got to take it one game at a time. But we just focused on our defense and we relied on that."
Ole Miss did receive solid offensive outputs from Muhammad (14 points, 6-of-6 FT, four rebounds, two steals) and Gibson (10 points, 2-of-3 3PT, three steals, one block), but it truly was the defense's time to shine today. The Rebels forced 20 Florida turnovers and turned that in 20 points, while only having 12 turnovers themselves. The Rebels also had 10 steals, marking the first back-to-back games with double-digits steals all season (had 10 at Auburn on Feb. 25).
The Rebels actually lead in all the specialty scoring categories, holding advantages of 22-10 in the paint, 20-6 in points off turnovers, 13-6 on second chance, 8-0 on fastbreak and 10-2 in bench scoring.
Other Rebels helping out included Alissa Alston (eight points, four assists, three steals, one block), Promise Taylor (five points, seven rebounds, two blocks, one steal), Bree Glover (four points, six rebounds, one block) and Kate Rodgers (two points, six rebounds).
Today's win snaps a 13-game losing streak and sets Ole Miss up to potentially become the first Rebel squad to win multiple games in a single SEC Tournament since 1993.
"I lot of people have counted this team out," Insell said. "A lot of people thought this team was just going to quit, and I think it very much shows the determination each and every night that they continue to play at a high level and push themselves to get better, and the result today on the scoreboard showed up for them and I'm just real proud of that."
The No. 14 seed Rebels will now take on No. 6 seed Missouri tomorrow night, 25 minutes after Game Five between No. 7 Tennessee and No. 10 Auburn at 6 p.m. CT.
"We all do things wrong and we all have made mistakes, but the one thing that none of us have done is quit on each other," Insell continued.