It was a back and forth SEC basketball game as the Tigers led by as much as 12 points in the first half and the Rebels led by as much as six in the second half. However, it was Auburn's backcourt that came up big in the end.
"I thought that today we executed well," Auburn head coach Lebo said. "DeWayne has done a better job of managing and understanding the game. Understand the time and score, when to speed it up, when to slow it, changing speeds. I thought the last five minutes of the game he did a great job of understanding that and getting us into what we needed to."
Freshman point guard Chris Warren had 25 points for the Rebels, but it was Tolbert, Reed and Robertson who made the plays when they mattered. Knotted at 70-70 with just over a minute to play, Reed blocked a Warren shot and Robertson hit a three from the corner to give the Tigers a lead that they would never relinquish.
"Coach just told me to stay in front of (Warren) because he was going to drive to the goal," Reed said of his block. "Try to cut him off. Fortunately he shot the ball, I put my hands up and blocked it."
When Auburn got the ball back against the Rebels' zone defense, Robertson had the ball on one wing, passed to the top of the key and ran baseline into the opposite corner. Lucas Hargrove found him wide open and Robertson hit nothing but net for his first points of the half.
"It's a set play regardless of who comes off the screen," Robertson added of his big three. "I just felt like I was open, I took a good, open shot and I made it."
Auburn finished the game 10-19 from long range.
"We were just moving without the ball, setting good screens for our teammates and just trying to get the open shots," Robertson explains. "That's what we did and we knocked it in tonight."
Following Robertson's three, Auburn got a defensive stop and Tolbert hit a pair of free throws to make it a five-point game with 39.4 seconds remaining. The Rebels could never get back within a one-possession game with the ball. Tolbert was 9-11 from the floor and 9-12 from the foul line. He also hit two early threes for his 29 points.
Auburn played just six players. Reed played the entire game and Robertson didn't come out until he got hit in the face by a Rebel player and started bleeding with just 5.1 seconds in the game.
"Two 40-minute games in the backcourt, that's amazing," Lebo noted. "You don't realize what we're asking of these kids in the backcourt. It's unbelievable what these kids have gone through."
Two others of the six were injured prior to the game. Tolbert injured an ankle and missed practice Friday, but Lebo joked that it probably helped him because it slowed him down. Rasheem Barrett, who had just eight points, injured himself in the pregame shoot-around.
"I thought we might get someone injured in the pregame meal," Lebo said.
The Tigers fell behind 7-2 quickly after a three by Warren from the wing and a jumper by Eniel Polynice, but Tolbert and Robertson brought the Tigers back with 11 consecutive points. After Tolbert buried a couple of threes, Robertson hit one from the wing to put Auburn up 13-7.
Passing it around against the zone, Hargrove was left open in the corner for three to extend Auburn's advantage to 23-13. Zach Graham answered with three-points for the Rebels on the other end of the court, but the hot-shooting Hargrove came back with another three. Auburn's biggest advantage was 30-18 off another bucket inside from Hargrove.
The Tigers had found open shots against the zone to build the 12-point lead, but when the Rebels switched to man-to-man Auburn's only points in the next five minutes of action was a driving layup by Barrett. Auburn's lead dwindled to 32-30 on one of Warren's seven threes in the game, and his next three-point attempt tied it at 33-33 after a free throw by Tolbert.
"He did split us a few times and make the extra pass," Lebo said of the 5-11 Rebel point guard. "When he threw it out, they missed some shots, so that was helpful. He's a good player. This is the year of the freshman, and I think he's as good as any of those guys that they're talking about. He really makes them go and I'm really impressed with him."
Playing with an injured right ankle, Barrett had a quiet eight points in 24 minutes including the last two free throws that put the game out of reach.
Auburn hit its first six threes of the game, but missed the other five in the first half. Tolbert, who had 14 points in the opening 20 minutes, gave a four-point lead back to Auburn at 40-36 on a jumpshot, foul and free throw with two and a half remaining on the clock.
Trevor Gaskins and Warren hit a pair of threes to again tie the score at 42-42. Auburn had its chances to take the lead, but came up empty on the offensive end. Ole Miss had time to get a good shot off before the buzzer, and Polynice drove to the basket. He was stuffed by Prowell, who gathered his own block while falling out of bounds, but he threw it back in underneath his own basket. It went right back to Polynice, who laid it in for a 44-42 Ole Miss halftime advantage.
The Tigers' claimed their first lead of the second half at the 10:50 mark. Tolbert drove the lane, kicked to Reed on the wing and the sophomore point guard made it to put Auburn up 62-60. Tolbert made one of two free throws and the Tigers had a chance to add to their lead as Tolbert led the fast break. However, he turned it over and Warren tied the game with a three with 8:50 to play.
At halftime, AU's former players were honored and so was former coach Sonny Smith, who received a plaque recognizing his induction into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
Auburn would score the next seven points starting with a Prowell kick out to Reed in the same spot he hit his other trey minutes earlier. Warren finally missed on the other end, but after hitting a pair of threes Reed took an ill-advised shot off the mark. David Huertas followed the trend with a missed mid-range jumper for Ole Miss, and Tolbert was able to get a driving layup to trickle end to extend Auburn's lead to five.
The Rebels continued to get decent looks on the offensive end, but Polynice missed an open one from the top of the key. Against the Ole Miss man-to-man defense, Reed used a pick from Prowell on the wing and a hesitation move to beat Dwayne Curtis to the basket for a lay-in to put Auburn up 70-63 with just over six minutes to play.
Prowell and Barrett both missed easy jumpers inside the free throw line and Ole Miss picked up four quick points from forward Kenny Williams. Yet another three from Warren, this time from deep, tied the game at 70-70 with three minutes remaining in the game. Tolbert and Barrett both missed the front ends of a one-and-one, but the Rebels couldn't get anything going on their end of the court as the score remained tied until Robertson's key three.
Prowell had an off night shooting the ball, but he had several clutch rebounds down the stretch and finished with 12 boards for the game.
"I never thought we'd win this game with Quan Prowell having two points on 1-10," Lebo said. "We thought that was one of our vantage points. He's not playing with confidence on offense shooting the ball so we've got to get him going a little bit."
"If he doesn't get some of those rebounds," Robertson added, "then they get some second-chance shots. They were beating us pretty big in the first half with second-chance shots, and if he doesn't grab those rebounds they get put-backs and probably get a score, a three or a foul. "
Hargrove added 10 points off the bench for Auburn, but was 0-4 from the foul line. Auburn was 16-28 from the free throw line, while the Rebels attempted just 11, eight of which were good.
Ole Miss' second-leading scorer and former Auburn player, Curtis, had 13 points and 11 rebounds.
"We played a lot of zone, and in the second half went a lot more man-to-man and we thought they would try to go right at us inside the Curtis, and we did a pretty good job with him," Lebo says.
Ole Miss out-rebounded Auburn 48-37.
"They killed us on the glass, especially in the first half," Lebo notes. "They're not above-the-rim guys. They wedge you and they out-weigh us by 40 or 50 pounds. That hurt us and that's probably the reason they were up at the half is because of their second shots."
Atypical of Auburn, the Tigers won the turnover battle against the Rebels 14-11.
"I thought Auburn was much more aggressive tonight," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "We were talking in the hall, and typically it's a full-proof stat that if your opponent makes more free throws than you attempt it's going to be a long night, especially on the road. We attempt one foul shot in the second half.
"We knew exactly what they were going to do," he continued. "We might have fooled them a little bit with the zone. The fact that they're playing five perimeter guys in that essence, it's difficult for them to match up with size along the front line and it was difficult for us to match up with their ability to break you down with the bounce on the perimeter. The obviously had more success because they shot it at a much greater percentage."
Going back to last season, Auburn beat its fourth ranked opponent in five tries. The Tigers improved to 11-5 overall and 2-2 in the SEC. Ole Miss dropped to 15-2, 2-2.
The Tigers' next game is on Tuesday at home against Presbyterian College at 7 p.m. Central. They return to SEC action at Alabama on Jan. 26 at 2 p.m.