Eight days ago when Auburn defeated New Orleans at home, point guard Lewis Monroe played just three minutes and it looked like it would be a long time before he would be able to help the Tigers. Saturday showed just how much an effective Monroe means to the Auburn basketball team as his play spurred the Tigers (10-3, 1-1) on to a 80-53 victory against an Ole Miss (8-5, 0-2) team that struggled on both ends of the floor against the bigger and more athletic Auburn team.
The defeat was the worst for the Rebels since a 97-53 loss to LSU in 1999 and Monroe's eight points and two assists in 21 minutes were a big reason why.
"I thought coming into this game, even if we played great we were going to have a tough game," Ole Miss Coach Rod Barnes said. "You talk about guys who have a great front line. If Lewis can ever get healthy this is a team that can be back in the Sweet 16. I have coached teams to the Sweet 16 and they think they are supposed to win. They think every time you threaten to beat them that they have to find a way to respond.
"It was easy to see what happened," Barnes added. "Auburn was good. We were bad. It resulted in a lopsided loss."
Forward Marco Killingsworth led the Tigers with 16 points and 10 rebounds, his fifth double-double of the season, as Auburn dominated the Rebels on the boards with a 20-rebound advantage.
While the play of the big men in the paint may have been the biggest difference in a victory on Saturday, Monroe's play and leadership will likely be far more important down the line for an Auburn team that played some of its best basketball of the season against Ole Miss on Saturday.
"When Lew is on the court he's our general," Killingsworth said. "He makes sure everything is going. He makes sure we huddle and that all of the plays get ran. He gets everybody the ball and he also helps out on defense. He plays a big role for us."
Playing 11 minutes in the first half, Monroe had four points and one assist, but more importantly he got Auburn into the offense earlier and established the paint as a place of dominance for the Tigers. Both Killingsworth and Davis had their way with the smaller Rebels in the first half as the two combined for 20 points and nine rebounds. Throw in Brandon Robinson's six rebounds and Auburn had a 22-7 rebounding edge at the break, a big reason for a 39-22 lead at intermission.
Lewis Monroe drives the baseline against Ole Miss in Saturday's game.
The Tigers jumped out early with an 8-0 run to open the game--all eight points coming in the paint. The Rebels managed to work their way into the game early with Justin Reed showing why he's one of the best players in the SEC this season. After bringing the lead back to 10-6 just minutes later, the Rebels would begin to have foul trouble because of their aggressive style of play on the defensive end. Both Reed and fellow standout Aaron Harper sat extensive minutes in the first half and that allowed the Tigers the opening they were looking for.
With just under eight minutes left in the first half, Reed picked up his second foul with Auburn leading just 18-11. On the bench and not able to help his team, Reed would watch as the Tigers scored five consecutive points to build the lead to 12 points after a Davis dunk on an assist from Nathan Watson. The Rebels were never able to get the lead back under eight points the rest of the half as Auburn scored 12 of the last 15 points of the half to lead by 17 at the break.
"I thought we came back from Wednesday's night's game very strong," Coach Cliff Ellis said of his team's performance. "It showed some veteran leadership, the fact that we didn't get too down after Wednesday. I thought our defense did a good job.
"Offensively, we know how Ole Miss is going to play. You just have to be tough with the ball. They are going to be in passing lanes. You have to be able to hit foul shots because you are going to get a lot of those. What was most impressive was the way we won the boards."
Entering the second half down 17, the Rebels knew they were going to have to be aggressive if they were to get back in the game against the Tigers. Instead of helping them in the game, their aggressiveness helped to break open the contest early in the second half as Auburn outscored Ole Miss 20-7 in the first nine minutes of the second half to put the game away. The Tigers got to the free throw line early and often in the opening minutes of the second half and made 28-38 shots from the charity stripe, a major reason why the lead ballooned to as many as 34 points when Monroe made two free throws with 4:29 left in the game.
Despite basket after basket from Reed down the stretch, the depth of the Tigers was just too much as the play of newcomers Ian Young, Ronnie Lemelle, Quinnel Brown and Dwayne Curtis along with point guard Troy Gaines wore down the visitors all day long. Ellis said seeing the newcomers and younger players bounce back from Wednesday night's loss to Vanderbilt is a positive sign for his team heading into the heart of SEC play.
"I thought those guys played very well," Ellis said. "That should give them some confidence. This league is going to demand and require that we play a lot of people. If you can go every possession as hard as you can go and people don't get selfish about time, minutes and points then we'll be all right. Sixteen games is a long, long, long road. You have to take them one at a time. It's going to take a lot of energy and a lot of bodies."
The Tigers return to action Wednesday night when they face South Carolina at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. and the game can be seen on Jefferson-Pilot sports.