- Jason King
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Sometimes, after he makes a big shot, Marshall Henderson likes to stick out his tongue.
The Ole Miss guard has been known to taunt the opposing crowd by flicking his jersey and screaming into the stands. And he can get his own fans into the game by raising his arms as he runs down the court, encouraging people to stand and yell.
Henderson did none of that in Friday’s game against Wisconsin.
Well, at least not in the first half.
“You can’t go too crazy,” Henderson said, “when you go 1 for your first 17.”
Actually, Henderson began Ole Miss’ first NCAA tournament game in 11 years by missing 13 of his first 14 shots. But that doesn’t change the point. The SEC’s leading scorer wasn’t himself. And as a result, neither were the Rebels.
“How does this happen?” Henderson said he thought to himself. “I’ve shot 20 hundred million shots in my day. Now that I make the NCAA tournament, why does this happen now?”
Henderson’s shooting stroke might have been missing, but his confidence wasn’t. That, more than anything, is why the Rebels were able to come from behind and defeat Wisconsin 57-46 in the round of 64 at the Sprint Center.
Henderson scored 17 of his 19 points after intermission to help turn a six-point deficit into an 11-point victory against the No. 5 seed Badgers, whose résumé includes two victories each against Michigan and Indiana.
One of Henderson’s biggest baskets came on a 3-pointer that forced a 36-36 tie with 9 minutes, 45 seconds remaining. An even bigger dagger came seven minutes later, when Henderson swished another 3 to extend Ole Miss’ cushion to 50-44 with 2:49 left.
“He got that one, and it was nuts,” Rebels guard Nick Williams said. “We went crazy when he got it, because we knew once that one came, he was going to go crazy. That gave us a big boost. We took off from there.”
Moments after the final horn sounded, Henderson darted around the court like the Tasmanian devil -- the cartoon character he often references. The tongue was out, the jersey was popping, and Henderson’s arms were flailing as he looked into the stands.
Ole Miss has always had decent talent under seventh-year coach Andy Kennedy, but the addition of Henderson -- last season's national junior college player of the year -- has led to a swagger in the locker room and an energy on the court that has been missing in years past.
He has also brought national attention to a program that, for the most part, has operated out of the spotlight during its 11-year tournament drought. Even on nights when Henderson (who averages 20.1 points) isn’t playing well, the opponent still expends a ton of energy trying to stop him.
“There’s no question,” Kennedy said, “that Marshall mania affects the psyche of the other team.”
That was evident Friday -- although the Rebels’ defense had just as much to do with Wisconsin’s struggles. The Badgers looked as if they’d never played against a zone.
Bo Ryan’s team shot just 25.4 percent (15-of-59) from the field and was outscored 30-16 in the paint by the Rebels, who were much more physical with players such as senior Reginald Buckner (12 rebounds, five blocks) and fifth-year senior Murphy Holloway (10 points, nine rebounds).
Ole Miss entered the game ranked seventh in the country at 78.2 points per game, but proved Friday it could excel in a low-scoring contest, too.
“We can play different styles,” Williams said. “People think of us as a run-and-gun team. But today we were smart. We passed the ball around. We shared the ball.
“All these analysts and so-called experts who said we weren’t supposed to be here, or that we can’t beat a certain team because they play a certain way ... it’s all nonsense. Eventually, you’ve got to get on the court and play ball. We were the better team today.”
Beating a high-profile opponent such as Wisconsin and a well-regarded coach such as Ryan could be a monumental step for Ole Miss, which will play La Salle on Sunday with the chance to advance to the Sweet 16.
It was less than a month ago that Kennedy’s job appeared to be in serious jeopardy following losses to SEC bottom-feeders South Carolina and Mississippi State. Making the NCAA tournament seemed like a long shot.
But the Rebels caught fire last week and won the SEC tournament, beating Florida in the title game. The teams that enter the NCAA tournament with momentum are usually the ones who fare the best. Ole Miss brought plenty of it to Kansas City.
“It took a tough loss at Mississippi State for us to come together,” Williams said. “A lot of people said we weren’t this or we weren’t that or we didn’t deserve anything. We just stayed together. The seniors led us. Everyone bought in at the right time.”
Still, in the end Friday, it took a little magic from Henderson to get Ole Miss over the hump. It was only fitting. Henderson is the one who took the Rebels’ program to the next level and got it back into the NCAA tournament.
And he’s the reason they’re still there.
About 24 hours before Friday’s game, Henderson said he watched Pittsburgh senior standout Travon Woodall go 1-for-12 in an upset loss to Wichita State.
“He probably played his worst game,” Henderson said. “I felt so bad for him after everything he’d done.”
After his 1-for-14 start, Henderson is thankful his season didn’t end the same way.
“I was sitting by Murphy on the bench,” Henderson said. “I was like, ‘If I don’t pick this up, it’s going to be my fault. I don’t want it to be my fault.’
“I had to pick it up a little bit, and I think I did just a tad. So now I’m glad I’m going to have a chance to redeem myself on Sunday.”
Ole Miss fans will probably chuckle at that one.
Marshall Henderson -- and the Ole Miss Rebels -- are doing just fine.