Warning: Video contains graphic gestures from fans
There he was, Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss’ most valuable player and the SEC’s leading scorer, popping his jersey Saturday in front of an irate Auburn student section.
Middle fingers pointed in his direction, he celebrated defiantly, having been the player to seal another Ole Miss win -- the ninth in a row for the Rebels -- with two made free throws that broke a 61-61 tie.
He had kept quiet throughout most of the game, only breaking character once or twice to celebrate a big play with a fist pump or high-flying chest bump with a teammate.
But when the horn sounded, when the game was over, Henderson turned on.
“Obviously, I didn’t see it when it occurred,” Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said Monday. “The game ends and there’s a lot going on and we’re just trying to survive the game, as you do in any road contest in the SEC. It was brought to my attention after the game. He did it, really, right in front of our radio people, so I had some boots on the ground, so to speak, that could tell me fact from fiction.
“There’s a lot of folklore going around with Marshall. I would’ve preferred him not doing that. But he’s caught up in the emotion of a highly-charged game. You’re talking about a one-possession game in front of a sellout crowd. We’re trying to make sure he channels it towards his teammates and towards us, as opposed to towards the opposing fans.”
Marshall Henderson, a national story in college basketball.
National pundits, from Pat Forde of Yahoo.com to Andy Katz of ESPN, went to Twitter to rebuke his actions. They had their reasons. As he’s done all year, Henderson let his emotions show.
There were stories written about him. Deadspin.com, CBSSports.com and others. He’s the heel opposing teams love to hate, but the face Ole Miss fans have quickly embraced.
Ole Miss, ranked No. 16 in the latest USA Today/Coaches’ poll, is 17-3 overall and 6-1 in league games after Tuesday's 87-74 home loss to Kentucky.
Against the Wildcats, the Henderson bandwagon slowed down a bit. He was just 5-for-19 from the field, including just two of 11 from 3-point range. Henderson did still manage to rack up 21 points thanks to hitting nine of 12 free throws.
“The way everybody’s guarding Marshall, it’s no secret they’re going to switch and extend on all that screening action,” Kennedy said after the game. “You have to play behind it. He wasn’t very efficient.”
Kentucky head coach John Calipari still came away impressed with Henderson's talent.
“He’s a terrific player, an exciting player,” Calipari said. “To be honest with you, I’ve watched the tape and I’ve smiled watching him play. Enjoy it. Andy’s letting him play like Andy played. If you get it, shoot it.”
Though the antics have increased his popularity in the media, Henderson's impressive play is what's catching the eye of SEC coaches.
“He’s a talented ballplayer. He’s one of those guys, looking at him from afar, I would’ve liked to play with him,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “I used to do a little trash talking myself. Not at the level of Marshall, but I used to do a little bit myself. It’s part of the game.”
Martin has seen Henderson up close. The Rebels have played his Volunteers twice already, grabbing wins in both games, with none more memorable than the first meeting in Thompson-Boling Arena.
It was in Knoxville that Henderson first started to draw national attention. He scored 32 points in the win, the first for Ole Miss in Thompson-Boling since 1991, but Tennessee media couldn’t get away from his celebrations and non-stop trash talking.
When round two arrived in Oxford two weeks later, Tennessee made a concerted effort to slow Henderson down. He drew double teams and had to work for every single point. Players even cheered his misses.
USA TODAY images
No matter. He led Ole Miss with 28 points in another win.
“I think he’s an entertainer,” Martin said. “I enjoy watching him play. He’s a guy that plays with passion, but he’s a guy that always played at that level, so it’s not a case of a guy coming to the SEC and let me try something new. That’s been his M.O. for the longest.
“You’ve got to applaud his effort and his energy. You’re talking about a guy that carries weight on the road, hostile environments, he brings it to the table. You have to respect a guy at the end of the day when he brings it to the table like that every night.”
Henderson averages a team-best 19.3 points per game, and leads the SEC and is tied for fifth in the nation in 3-pointers made with 3.9 per game. But what has college basketball talking is his -- ahem -- colorful personality.
He was even a topic on ESPN’s Around the Horn, a nationally-syndicated television show, on Monday.
“Guys understand that he is about team first,” Kennedy said. “They accept him for what he brings to our program. He’s a guy that loves basketball, he plays with an edge and I think he’s been readily open with the fact that if he didn’t play with that edge, he wouldn’t be a guy that could lead the SEC in scoring.”
Henderson struggled to find a good shot against Kentucky's stifling defense, a recurring theme that is one area of concern. Though he leads the conference in scoring and ranks 23rd nationally, Henderson's .380 field-goal percentage is the lowest of any of the nation's top 50 scorers.
“As his coach, I’m probably more concerned with his shot selection than maybe him popping his shirt here and there.”
In a down year in the SEC, some have argued Henderson is a welcomed headline for the league. Yes, he’s polarizing, but he has people talking.
Because love him or hate him, the kid popping his jersey postgame to the ire of a student section is a drawing card.
“He’s a work in progress, as is our team,” Kennedy said. “He’s a kid that’s been put in a situation where there’s a lot of attention being drawn to him from the minute he walks into the building. I think, for the most part, he’s handled it well.”
Ole Miss next faces No. 4 Florida (16-2, 6-0 SEC) on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU. The Marshall Henderson show gets another national showcase.