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Rebels, Bulldogs try to build momentum in SEC finales

OXFORD — After two devastating losses likely knocked it off the bubble for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Ole Miss’ path to the Big Dance lies in winning the Southeastern Conference Tournament next week in Nashville.

Tuesday’s performance against Kentucky was a good — and important — first step toward that.

Devontae Shuler scored 17 points, K.J. Buffen had 16 points and 10 rebounds, as Ole Miss beat Kentucky for the first time in a decade, 70-62. The Rebels (14-10, 9-8 SEC) snapped an 11-game losing streak in the series and, hopefully, started to build momentum for the postseason.

With one game left in the regular season — Ole Miss hosts Vanderbilt on Saturday — there are still plenty of scenarios in play to determine who gets what seed in the 14-team SEC Tournament. Ole Miss appears most likely to be the No. 6 seed, but could still wind up fifth or seventh.

“We’re playing for fifth and there are a lot of good teams behind us, so we are playing for a lot,” Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis said. “We may not be the bubble team we were a week ago, but there are postseason implications with every single game. The biggest thing is to try and get your team playing well going into the conference tournament.”

Davis added that another thing working in the Rebels’ favor is the overall inconsistency of the SEC this season. Eight teams entered the final week of the regular season within three games of each other, and only six have winning records in conference play.

Davis said the inconsistency was “frustrating,” but that it could work in favor of a team that gets hot at the right time — maybe even his own.

“We’ve got three top 25 wins, two top 10s, we beat Kentucky even if it might not be the normal Kentucky team, and we’ve been competitive in a lot of other games. I think our team is one of seven or eight that can do that,” Davis said. “Some things have to fall your way. No question about it, there are some teams in this league that can win three or four games.

“We may get a draw that you can beat a couple of ranked teams in the tournament, and then you never know what may happen.”

Beating Kentucky (8-15, 7-9) was a step in the right direction.

Ole Miss shot 46 percent (23-of-50) from the floor and dominated on the glass with a 42-28 margin. Defensively, the Rebels forced Kentucky to shoot 38 percent (21-of-56) from the floor and move to 10-0 when holding opponents below 40 percent.

The Rebels also went 16-for-19 from the free throw line (84.2 percent), a stat that proved crucial down the stretch.

Four Kentucky players reached double figures, with Keion Brooks Jr. tallying a team-high 16 points off the bench, but it wasn’t enough to keep the Wildcats from earning an unwanted place in the program’s storied history.

Kentucky will play on Thursday in the SEC Tournament for the first time since 2008, and also clinched its first losing season in the league since the 1988-89 season.

Kentucky finishes the regular season Saturday at home against South Carolina.

Kentucky started the season ranked No. 10 in the country, but will need to win the SEC Tournament and the league’s automatic berth to reach the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s winding down,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We’re up against it now.”

Mississippi State will finish the regular season Saturday at Auburn. The Bulldogs are currently in sole possession of the No. 8 seed for the SEC Tournament, but could still move up to No. 6 or down to No. 9 depending on Saturday’s results.

Mississippi State (14-12, 8-9) beat Texas A&M 63-57 on Wednesday for its third victory in four games.

“Everyone is desperate right now. We’re playing like we have something to lose. I truly believe we have something to lose,” Mississippi State forward Abdul Ado said. “The last couple of years I’ve been here, we always seem to blend when the season is about to end. We always come together and just have that rhythm.”

MISSISSIPPI STATE AT AUBURN
• Saturday, Noon
• TV: SEC Network
• Radio: 105.5 FM

VANDERBILT AT OLE MISS
• Saturday, 6 p.m.
• TV: SEC Network
• Radio: 107.7 FM

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