Auburn, Ala.--Just over a month ago the Auburn Tigers (16-8, 5-6) dropped an 88-85 decision at home to the Ole Miss Rebels (14-10, 5-6) in a game Coach Bruce Pearl’s team felt like they should have won.
Saturday they have a chance for redemption and in the process keep their hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid alive when they face the Rebels on the road in a big game for both teams.
“We played each other about 10 games ago and I think when you get to this point one of the things you ask yourself is how much has each team improved,” Pearl said. “I think both teams have improved. Obviously, the middle of our league is very, very competitive and very, very close. Everybody is going to be focusing on the results because the results are going to create separation and separation is going to create teams that are going to the postseason.”
Winning five of its last seven games, Auburn faces an Ole Miss team that is led by talented guard Deandre Burnett and big man Sebastian Saiz. Averaging 16.5 points and 3.2 assists, the 6-2, 192 Burnett scored 18 points in the first meeting between the two teams. Posting 17 double-doubles this season, the 6-9, 240 Saiz averages 15.5 points and 11.6 rebounds per game this year.
Throw in 6-4, 201 guard Terance Davis (13.1 points, 5.5 rebounds) and Ole Miss is a team with plenty of weapons. When you add in the fact that the Rebels have beaten Auburn nine consecutive times and it’s no wonder this game is an important one for the Tigers.
“Ole Miss is another team like Tennessee and South Carolina that plays really hard,” Pearl said. “Those teams have bothered us. We’re disappointed that we didn’t win in Auburn. You don’t always get another opportunity in the same year to play a team that you had played well enough to beat, but Ole Miss played great in here and they made plays down the stretch.”
For Auburn the key is going to be continuing to get production from up and down the roster. Freshmen Mustapha Heron (15.3 ppg), Jared Harper (12.7 ppg), Danjel Purifoy (11.4 ppg) and Austin Wiley (9.5 ppg) lead the Tigers in scoring this season, but the bench has led the way recently and has been a big reason for Auburn’s recent success.
One of those guys is senior point guard Ronnie Johnson. Averaging 7.1 points and 2.3 assists, Johnson has solidified the bench for the Tigers and believes the team is functioning better and better every time out.
“The chemistry is becoming stronger the more games we close out together,” Johnson said. “I think everyone is just feeling out each other more and getting a better understanding of how to win.”
That winning feeling is something the Tigers are hoping continues on Saturday in Oxford. With a tip time of 5 p.m. in a game that can be seen on the SEC Network, Johnson said it’s time to keep it rolling and stay the course.
“I think everybody knows that we're a couple of games away from the tournament,” Johnson said. “Really, we're just trying to take it one game at a time and just rely on each other to get us there.”