Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 3/16/13
NASHVILLE, Tenn. Florida knows it's in the NCAA Tournament. Ole Miss thinks it is, but wants to make sure. They'll play here Sunday at noon in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game. To the victor goes the league's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament field of 68. That would come as a relief to Ole Miss (25-8), which entered SEC tourney play firmly on the bubble, if not on the outside looking in, for a NCAA tourney at-large bid, should it not cut down the nets with the tourney title in tow on Sunday. No. 13 Florida (26-6), on the other hand, would like to ride the wave of momentum earned from strolling through the SEC tournament field with three convincing victories. With a national RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) sitting at sixth in the country, according to NCAA.com, the Gators could nail down a No. 2 NCAA tourney seed, if not better, with a league tourney crown Sunday. "I think this time of year, lots of times it's not always a team that can play the prettiest or it comes the easiest," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose team can win its first SEC tourney title since the 2007 crown that completed a three-year reign. "Sometimes, it's got to be a will and a fight internally to try to make some things happen," Donovan added. Top-seeded Florida earned its spot in the title game with a 61-51 win Saturday over fourth-seeded Alabama. In the other semifinal game at Bridgestone Arena, third-seeded Ole Miss pulled away from No. 10 seed Vanderbilt for a 64-52 victory. In their only meeting this season, Florida beat visiting Ole Miss 78-64 on Feb. 2. "At 25-8, now having won 14 SEC games, and not many people are still playing, so I feel pretty confident about our opportunity to get the albatross from around the neck of this program as it relates to the NCAA Tournament," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said of the Rebels' chances of making the NCAA tourney field, win or lose Sunday, for the first time since 2002. Sunday's game against Florida will be the Rebels' first SEC tourney title game since a 2001 loss to Kentucky. Their only league tourney championship came in 1981 with a win over Georgia. "For the seniors, it was a sense of urgency," Ole Miss senior forward Reginald Buckner said after scoring 15 points and pulling a game-high nine rebounds in the win over Vanderbilt. Fellow senior forward Murphy Holloway added 12 points and eight rebounds, while junior guard Marshall Henderson, the league's leading scorer, had a game-high 23 points. "Me and Murph got together," Buckner added. "We had a goal. We're trying to get to the SEC championship." Ole Miss started SEC play fast by winning its first six games. But the Rebels hit the skids after that, losing four of five games, before righting the ship by now winning four games in a row and six of their last eight. Their RPI is currently is 56. Despite winning the league's regular-season title, the Gators sputtered down the stretch, going 6-4 over the last 10 games, including 3-3 in the last six. Then again, all four of Florida's road losses in SEC play came on the road against Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee. In beating Alabama, the Gators rode the hot hand in the second half of senior guard Kenny Boynton, who has struggled with offensive consistency this season. After he didn't score in the first half, Boynton scored the first 11 points of a 15-0 run by Florida that gave his team a comfortable cushion it would not relinquish. He finished with a team-high 16 points. "I was really, really happy for Kenny, personally, just to see him bounce back and to continue to have confidence and belief in himself and to play with that fire that I see him play with so often," Donovan said of Boynton, a four-year starter, three-time all-SEC pick and the career scoring leader among active SEC players with 1,982 points. Boynton said he was challenged at halftime by Donovan to lead the team to victory. "He challenged me to come out and play with confidence," Boynton said of the halftime pep talk from his coach. "Honestly, he did challenge me. I think I tried to step up to it." After getting a solid NCAA tourney resume win Thursday over Tennessee in the quarterfinal round, Alabama (21-12) will now wait and see if it did enough this season to garner an NCAA tourney at-large nod. "We'll find out (Sunday)," said Crimson Tide coach Anthony Grant, whose team has a national RPI of 62. "Nothing is guaranteed. The season could end. It could be over (Saturday). " We had an opportunity here to try to compete for a championship. Didn't get it done. That's all that was promised. After that, we have to wait and see." Vanderbilt's season ended on an upbeat, despite the loss to Ole Miss. With the youngest roster in the league that has no seniors and two juniors, the Commodores (16-17) had won eight of their last 11 games, including beating Kentucky and Arkansas in the SEC tourney, before Saturday's defeat. "I am so proud of my team," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "I thought this basketball team might have improved as much as any team I've ever coached in a single season."
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