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March 4, 2013TUSCALOOSA | The date was Jan. 26. Marshall Henderson was standing on a table in Auburn and Ole Miss basketball was standing as tall as it had in a decade, with a 17-2 record and a clear path to the NCAA Tournament.
That path has become obscured. The Rebels, 4-6 since that day, don't want it to vanish. Meanwhile, Alabama, whose path has been fainter for much of the season, wants to push past the Rebels on the road when the two play tonight.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, hopes the home court cures a dismal stretch that has included losses to South Carolina and, most recently, Mississippi State.
"It was a tough loss," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said Monday. "We didn't play very well. It was a damaging loss to our (NCAA) profile. All we can do now is get ready for our last two games, improve that profile."
The Rebels' best hope hinges on a bounce-back game by the SEC's leading scorer, Henderson. The charismatic - some might say cocky - guard had 16 points in the loss to MSU, just below his 19.5 point-per-game average, but he made just three of 18 3-point attempts as he tried to shoot Ole Miss back into the game in Starkville.
"He's a terrific scorer," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said of Henderson. "He scores in a variety of ways. He's got a great ability to make tough shots. So all you can do is try to make it difficult on him. Where he's really impressive is his ability to get to the free-throw line. He's got a way of drawing contact, and he really knows how to play. A guy like him, he's going to score, and the thing that you can't do is get discouraged."
Alabama can clinch a bye into the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament with a win tonight, as well as enhancing its NCAA hopes with a quality win. The Crimson Tide hopes to do so with its usual strong defense - and fewer whistles than it has drawn in the past two games.
"Well, that's a concern," Grant said with just enough reserve to fall short of criticizing the officials. "Especially going into a game like this, with Ole Miss' size and physicality, it's a concern. When you look at our last two road games, we've fouled 49 times to our opponents' 28, a 21-foul differential. You look at free throws: We've attempted 29 free throws, our opponents attempted 63 free throws in the last two (road) games. You're dealing with a team in Ole Miss that in their last six games (is) averaging 28 free throws a game. So that will be critical for us. (The media) talk all the time about how physical SEC basketball is and how it impacts games.
"The last two road games, that's a 27-point differential, which is tough to overcome. That will be a point of emphasis for us. We have to do a better job there."
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.