"It was a hard fought win," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said following the victory. "I can't say enough about the effort of our basketball team. I thought they overcame a lot. I thought they overcame what was a sluggish start and a lot of young teams that are not maturing would have caved in against a team like Ole Miss, who is a strong basketball team. Our guys kept battling. It was a hard fought win and so many guys stepped up to the plate."
None stepped up more than Bird. With just three points at intermission, the junior college transfer from Michigan came out smoking in the second half and keyed the Tigers to the win. Raining in shots from outside and three-point line and in the paint, the smooth shooter said it was Auburn's plan in the second half to take the ball right at the smaller Rebel post players and that wound up being the difference in the game.
Derrick Bird calmly sinks the winning free throw with 5.8 seconds left.
"My shot was feeling good from the jump, but I just couldn't get any shots off and the offense was struggling," Bird said. "We weren't moving and screening and that hurt us a little bit offensively. We came on a run in the first half and settled down at halftime and talked about screening more and looking for players without the ball.
"Anytime you play Ole Miss you know they are going to deny and play up on you real aggressive," Bird added. "You have to drive in and if you don't it's going to be harder for you to get shots. We just focused in, Dwayne did a good job of driving and penetrating and he also took some big shots for us. I just think everybody's play in the second half was great."
Trailing 31-28 at the break, Auburn was easily within striking distance of the favored Rebels and had survived a terrible stretch of basketball in the first half to be in the game. That appeared to be all for nothing as early in the final 20 minutes Ole Miss broke open the game behind some strong outside shooting. With the score 33-31, tiny point guard Jason Harrison drained a three from the top of the key and then Aaron Harper hit back-to-back bombs from the right wing and just like that Ole Miss had an 11-point lead with 13:48 left in the game.
Instead of folding like they had earlier in the season, this young Tiger squad answered back behind the play of Bird. First he scored two quick baskets to cut the lead to seven and then Adam Harrington drove the lane and dropped one in off the glass to make it just a five-point Rebel lead with 12:15 left. The two teams would seesaw back and forth until a jumper by Derrick Allen with 9:08 gave Ole Miss a seven-point lead. That's when Bird and Mitchell began to take over.
First Mitchell hit a jumper from just inside the three-point line that cut the lead to five, then Bird drained a three from the corner that bounced around before falling through the basket. "Shooters touch," he said with a smile after the game. Mitchell would finish the run with a three of his own and the Tigers trailed just 50-49 with 6:37 left.
Auburn would take its first lead just minutes later on an Abdou Diame jump hook and eventually built the lead to four when Bird drained another three-pointer with 3:57 remaining. However, Reed wouldn't let the Rebels walk away without a fight. Scoring the next five points of the game, he gave his team the lead back at 57-56 with just over three minutes left. The final three points of his run came on a very controversial call, to say the least. Catching the ball in the post, he turned and drove a shoulder into Brandon Robinson and hesitated before putting the ball into the air. It didn't matter as the referees awarded him the shot plus a free throw that gave Ole Miss the lead. However, it also got the small but vocal Auburn crowd into the game for the final three minutes, something that would prove to be big down the stretch.
Auburn would begin to pull away for a brief moment as a Mitchell three-pointer with just 45 seconds remaining in the game gave the Tigers a 63-58 lead. The basket came after Mitchell played a terrific defensive sequence on Reed. Handling him straight up in the low post for the possession, the much shorter Mitchell forced a shot from the perimeter instead of allowing the post-up and tipped the rebound to Bird for the possession. For all of his good plays, Mitchell almost allowed the Rebels back into the game just seconds later when he threw away an inbound pass with 23 seconds left and the Tigers leading by three points that eventually led to a David Sanders basket that cut Auburn's lead to just one with six seconds remaining. Like he had all night, Bird calmly walked to the free throw line after being fouled and dropped two right in the bottom of the net to give Auburn a three-point lead with 5.8 seconds left. A desperation shot by Ole Miss to tie the game didn't draw iron and the Tigers walked away with the much-needed 65-62 victory.
The first half was far from a thing of beauty for the Tigers as they went without a field goal for the first 7:38 of the game until Marco Killingsworth dropped in a lay-up to make the score 11-4 Ole Miss. Things didn't get any better from that point on though as they failed to do anything on offense and if not for an aggressive defense they would have been throttled early on their home court. Playing tough man-to-man, the Tigers were able to hang around but when Sanders hit a three-pointer with 6:45 remaining to give his team a 23-7 lead, things looked bleak for Ellis and squad.
Like they have the last few games, the freshmen came to the rescue. This time it was in the form of Lewis Monroe. Scoring seven straight points, he keyed a 17-0 Auburn run in just over three minutes of game action and just like that the Tigers had the lead at 24-23. However, as quickly as it came it went as the Rebels scored the eight points to take back a seven-point lead before a Killingsworth layup with 48 seconds left made the score 31-26 Rebels at the half, setting up the exciting second half of play.
The Tigers return to action Saturday at 2 p.m. when they travel to Starkville to face the Mississippi State Bulldogs. The Bulldogs lost to LSU Wednesday night to fall to 5-6 in the league and 18-7 overall.
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