Costly Setback

Ole Miss' postseason hopes suffered a difficult blow Wednesday, as the Rebels fell to Auburn 77-64 on The Plains. Read about it inside.

They've got their work cut out for them.

Over the last few weeks, Ole Miss has developed a reputation for being a second half team. In wins over Tennessee and Georgia, the Rebels dominated the first five minutes following halftime, triggering runs to put each game away.

"At the beginning of the year, I felt like we were a first half team," freshman Murphy Holloway said after the team's victory over Georgia Saturday. "We wouldn't do too much in the second half. But it seems like now we've been playing better.

"When we come out in the second half, the first three minutes are very important. We've come out with a lot of energy and pulled away."

My, how quickly things change.

Despite a Rebel lead of 40-36 at halftime, Auburn used an 11-0 run in the opening minutes of the second to bury Ole Miss. The Tigers (18-10, 7-6) led 47-40 before the Rebels could catch their breath, capitalizing on an extensive scoring drought from their opponents.

Baskets were few and far between, as Ole Miss (15-12, 6-7) scored only five points through the first 11 minutes. Kennedy mixed and matched personnel the best he could, to no avail.

The Rebels were 1-17 from the field during that long stretch (barely five percent), falling behind by as much as 16. They connected on merely seven buckets throughout the second half, finishing the game only 37 percent in field goals.

"We started like 1-17 in the second half and they came out on fire," said head coach Andy Kennedy of the team's post-halftime woes. "You can see by our statline, we had the same guys shooting, but we couldn't find a way to score."

By the way the game started, it seemed Ole Miss was destined for their third consecutive victory. Leading 14-8 after a three-pointer by junior David Huertas, the Rebels were battling.

Korvotney Barber answered with a layup, but Zach Graham added another three spot to put the team up seven at 17-10.

Despite Auburn pulling within three at 19-16, the Rebels responded with 7-2 run to extend the lead to eight. The Tigers kept it close, however, with a Tay Waller three-pointer cutting the lead back to three at 26-23.

While both teams exchanged baskets in the final minutes of the first, the Rebels' had clearly won the half. Their advantage was seven with only three seconds to go and Ole Miss was showing no signs of slowing down.

That is, of course, until Quantez Robertson hit a three as time expired.

Can you say momentum shift?

"Coach (Lebo) told us in the huddle that we had a few seconds and to try and get a shot off," said Robertson. "I tried to get the ball as fast I could and then I was able to get it up and it went in. I was trying to go up with a rhythm jump shot, but one of Ole Miss' players got his hand on the ball. I just threw it up, but it went in."

The Tigers came out rolling in the second, as Waller scored seven-straight points to put his team up three at 43-40. Rasheem Barrett hit a jumper for two more, while adding two free throws after a Malcolm White turnover.

Trailing 47-40, Zach Graham hit a three-pointer at the 15:47 mark to finally get Ole Miss on the board, but the game seemed well in hand. While he followed with two free throws, Auburn went on a 12-0 run to put the game away at 59-45.

"It kind of lets you down a little bit," Graham said of the early Tiger run. "After that pep talk at halftime, to stay on top and come out with intensity. Then [Auburn] comes out and scores seven-straight points and back-to-back threes. It kind of flustered us a little bit."

There would be no miraculous Rebel comeback in this one. The Tigers were never threatened the rest of the way.

"They came out and attacked us right from the jump," said Kennedy. "We wanted to make sure Tay Waller didn't get in a groove, and we let him get 18 – a majority of those points coming in the second half."

We all knew Auburn was a veteran bunch. Heck, Jeff Lebo's entire starting rotation consists of juniors and seniors.

But their dominance (or Ole Miss' ineptness, whichever you choose) in the second was something no one could have predicted.

The Rebels literally went ice cold. No shot taken could find the net, while the Tigers were clearly rolling – Auburn outscored Ole Miss 41-24 in the second.

To Kennedy, however, the stat of the game wasn't simply his team's shooting struggles.

"The key in the game was the 23 turnovers," he said. "We weren't strong with ball. When that happens, you're going to come out on the losing end."

Let me be clear, Ole Miss' chances for an NCAA berth are not completely shot after falling to Auburn, but they've taken a critical blow.

They needed this win, having dropped other winnable road contests at LSU and Alabama. The Tigers entered tonight's matchup as one of the hottest teams in the SEC, and a victory would have looked awfully good on a postseason resume.

The Rebels had won five of their last seven, but had no room for error. An NIT bid is certainly attainable, but hopes for March Madness are on life support.

To get back on the radar, they'll have to win their remaining games and probably get to the finals in Tampa - if not win the whole thing.

"At this stage in the game, we are what we are," Kennedy said. "We have to protect home court Saturday (against Alabama)."

Terrico White paced the Rebels with a career-high 24 points, while Zach Graham and David Huertas both added 15.

Ole Miss returns to action Saturday against Alabama at 3 p.m.

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