In the end, it was another night of frustration. And this one was at home against what many thought was the worst team in the conference.
But Ole Miss has lost to Auburn twice now, and that's not a good thing this season. Auburn wasn't a very good team last season either, and Ole Miss won twice – both at Auburn and in Oxford.
The Tigers, now 12-13 on the season and 4-10 in Southeastern Conference play, seem to be improving. In their last three games, Auburn lost to LSU by four, beat Mississippi State by four, and now beat Ole Miss 58-54.
Those other two games were at home. This one was on the road. Auburn had lost 12 straight SEC road games.
Ole Miss, on the other hand, lost for the tenth time in its last 11 games. Since a 3-0 start to the conference season, Ole Miss has won just once, a 73-70 win over Arkansas in Oxford. There are regular season games left against Vanderbilt at home Wednesday and at LSU next Saturday.
It's hard to evaluate since the 3-0 start to league play just which game was one of those "must wins." Actually this one against Auburn came pretty close – home game, weak opponent, still fighting for a winning season.
But a loss at Georgia after the 3-0 start signaled that talk among some, mostly outside the program, of making a run at the SEC West was a bit premature. But when you start 3-0, even 8-8 doesn't seem all that far-fetched.
Then came Georgia. The Rebels didn't play well. In what many would consider one of its most winnable road games, the Rebels left Athens with their first conference loss. And it all hasn't gotten much better since.
A loss at Arkansas. Home losses to LSU and Florida. A road loss at Tennessee.
At 3-5 and halfway through the league season, the Rebels still had a chance to make some noise. They went to Auburn, another winnable game, and led by 14 points late in the first half. But a second-half collapse led to an eight-point loss.
A loss at home to Alabama followed, then the win over Arkansas. But a 29-point loss at Mississippi State and a 40-point loss at Kentucky could hardly be written off as anything but unsettling. Only weeks ago, those type losses wouldn't have been expected by any.
Now the latest loss to Auburn. The Rebs led by two at halftime (35-33), but as has become the norm for this team, they couldn't finish. Couldn't buy a basket late. Not from 3-point range. Not from 2-point range. Not from anywhere.
The game was tied 44-44 when Todd Abernethy made a layup at the 13:16 mark of the second half. The rest of the way, Auburn only scored 14 points, but that's more than enough when your opponent scores just 10.
It was still close, even late. Dwayne Curtis made a layup with six minutes to go that tied it 52-52. For the entire last six minutes of play, Auburn won the scoring battle 6-2.
Ole Miss couldn't throw it into the ocean, as the old saying goes, with no better example than senior Londrick Nolen, who was 4-for-6 in the first half for 12 points. In the second half he was 0-for-5 and ended the game with 12 points.
In the second half the Rebels shot 27 percent. Made eight of 30 shots. From 3-point range just one of 14. That's seven percent.
For the game 37 percent from the floor. At home. Against an average Auburn team, but an Auburn team playing better.
What else needs to be said?
But there was more. Rod Barnes admitted these aren't the best of times, but the fight goes on.
"Our guys played hard, but we couldn't get it done again," he said. "Obviously I'm disappointed because we lost the game. But we've got to keep going. We were lacking some confidence after two tough losses on the road. We got some good looks but couldn't make shots. I don't know if we were tense or tight, but we got some good looks we couldn't knock down."
Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo said he understands what it's like to have a team lack confidence in a lot of areas, including shooting.
"They've been struggling shooting the basketball," Lebo said. "When you don't make them, that's contagious, just like when you do make them it's contagious. They just didn't look comfortable out there to me when they shot them. When you're a shooter, confidence is such a big thing. I was a shooter myself, and I understand how important confidence is. It's huge."
Barnes said it is indeed hard to score when you lack that confidence.
"It's frustrating," he said. "What I try to do is keep my composure and tell them as long as we continue to get good shots, then they will eventually fall. But tonight they didn't. We've got to figure out some ways to manufacture some baskets until we get our shooting touch back."
Barnes, whose squad is now 14-13 on the season and 4-10 in SEC play, said his team must not pack it in at this point, that there are too many games left to be played. They must press on. Same goes for himself.
"I'm disappointed but I'm not going to get crushed," he said. "I may bend. I may lean over. But I'm not going to fall. The effort was there, and they're going to compete. We're down about losing, but we have to get ready for Vanderbilt on Wednesday. We'll fight again and hopefully make some shots."
Curtis returned to Oxford from his brother's funeral late on Friday. He worked out on his own Friday night and with the team Saturday morning.
"He was a little rusty but he played well," Barnes said of Curtis, who scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead the Rebels. "We were glad to have him back with us."
Barnes admitted that it has been a tough stretch of games and personal situations for him and for the team the past few weeks. No excuses, just the facts.
"This is life," he said. "A lot of things you deal with in life happen to you on the basketball court. What you do as a family, and that's what we are, determines your character. We can either lay down and accept this or we can choose to fight. I choose to fight, and I believe (the players) will choose to fight.
"I know Wednesday we'll show back up, and the kids will follow their coach," he continued. "We'll make a few more shots and get a few more rebounds, and we'll have our winning season."
Barnes: Rebels will continue to fight
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