And Ole Miss is on the board.
Full disclosure, at various times during the Rebels’ win at Auburn, I was ready to write Ole Miss off. The same issues that have plagued the Rebels all season flared up time and again, from the lack of a true point guard, to little or no production at the four alongside Sebastian Saiz, the same defensive breakdowns and the same struggles to close out on the perimeter.
Then Rasheed Brooks hit a game-deciding 3 in the final minutes of an 88-85 Ole Miss win, the first for the Rebels in SEC play. Basketball is funny like that.
Make no mistake, Ole Miss (10-5, 1-2 SEC) still has issues, but it may have also learned some things about itself as it pushes through the next few months and attempts to build its postseason case. Breein Tyree started at point guard, but Deandre Burnett, who’s played predominantly off the ball all year, assumed those duties for the majority of the second half, and his contributions were critical. He finished with a team-leading 18 points, with much of his damage coming from the free throw line (10-12). And don’t be fooled; that was by design. Burnett has been up and down all year with his offense. He’s been the Rebels’ best free throw shooter, however, and head coach Andy Kennedy putting the ball in his hands allowed for Burnett to play to his greatest strength. He’s still too turnover prone (he finished with six against Auburn), but if he can protect the ball at an even league-average rate, he might have found his position for the foreseeable future.
But that’s not all. Justas Furmanavicius played the third-most minutes behind only Burnett and Sebastian Saiz, and his output was good enough that it kept Auburn honest while defending Saiz. He was a catalyst in pushing the ball in the open floor, too, with his 11 points a lift, as were his five rebounds and five points from the free throw line. Enough can’t be said for Cullen Neal either. Neal, who combined to score all of four points in the previous two SEC games, was recruited and pulled from New Mexico as a graduate transfer with the belief he would start at point guard. But he’s shown to be better off the ball and off the bench. He scored no points in the first half, only to turn around in the second and total 13. He was 3 of 6 from 3.
Bottom line, and not to belabor the point, but Ole Miss all but kept its season afloat by hanging on and winning on the Plains. The Rebels were staring an uphill climb to even 18-20 wins with a loss, and they had every reason to lose. They were down seven at halftime. They blew a 12-point second-half lead. They blew a five-point advantage in the final minute. Yet they persevered.
Back-to-back losses to open SEC play against, arguably, the two best teams in the conference in Kentucky and Florida were understandable, but Auburn is comparable to Ole Miss in talent and standing. Auburn is the type of team the Rebels have to beat to, realistically, make a push for the NCAA Tournament. Ole Miss’ resume is still lacking; the Rebels have no signature wins, and two games that would have helped immensely (Kentucky and Middle Tennessee) ended up as blowouts for the opponent.
But they have life still. Sure, they very well end up as nothing more than an 18-20-win team. Or maybe they're better. The beauty of Saturday is they can now take a breath, step back and come home in a few days to build from here. And maybe, just maybe, Auburn was the jumpstart they’ve long been looking for. For the first time in weeks, the Rebels have a shot of momentum.
Ole Miss guard Cullen Neal
On the Rebels, as a team, making their free throws down the stretch: “Dre was great. I think Dre all of his free throws at the end of the game, and Sebas made two big ones. We were able to close because of that. And, definitely, making free throws is important.” On his second-half performance: “I was just trying to stay aggressive. I have a little different role now, but I was trying to stay aggressive and shoot when I was open. I was able to make some shots.” On his change in role: “It hasn’t been too difficult because my teammates are always talking to me, and we’re always talking to each other. As you’ve seen, we’ve changed a lot of lineups since the year started. If A.K. continues to do that, we’ll be ready. We’re always ready.” On if the game was a must-win: “Definitely. Hopefully we can turn this win into much more.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- (AP) Rasheed Brooks hit a straightaway 3-pointer with 39 seconds left, and Deandre Burnett went 4 for 4 from the foul line in the final 30 seconds to help Ole Miss outlast Auburn 88-85 on Saturday.
Terence Davis went 1 for 2 from the foul line to give Ole Miss (10-5, 1-2 SEC) its three-point lead with 12 seconds remaining. Auburn (10-5, 0-3) then took a timeout with 3.9 seconds left before inbounding to T.J. Lang, whose 3-point attempt from the right wing glanced off the front of the rim as time soon expired.
Burnett had 18 points and eight assists, and Davis had 16 points. Auburn's Jared Harper scored 18 of his 24 points in the second half. Mustapha Heron added 20 points for the Tigers.
Auburn took a 41-33 lead into halftime, shooting 50 percent from the field to Ole Miss' 42.9 percent and outrebounding the Rebels 19-13.
But Ole Miss began the second half on an 11-3 run, with Davis' 3-pointer with 16:42 left tying the score at 44.
Ole Miss got its first SEC win while Auburn lost its third straight conference game.
Auburn outrebounded Ole Miss 36-26. It was just the second time this season that the Rebels, who lead the SEC in rebounding, were outrebounded by an opponent.
Auburn sets out on a two-game road swing starting at Missouri on Tuesday. Mizzou lost to Georgia 71-66 on Saturday to extend its losing streak to six games. Kevin Puryear averages 12.7 points for Missouri, which defeated Auburn 76-61 in Columbia last season.
Ole Miss comes home for a meeting with Georgia on Wednesday. Yante Maten averages 20.4 points and J.J. Frazier averages 16 for the Bulldogs, who last season split their season series with Ole Miss.