AUBURN, Ala. – Chris Denson was draining H-O-R-S-E shots all night long – until he missed the one that really counted.
Ole Miss was clanking free throws, the simplest shot in basketball, all night long – until Marshall Henderson dropped the ones that really counted, much to the chagrin of Auburn fans.
That’s life right now for Ole Miss (living right) and Auburn (not so much), when an ebb-and-flow tussle ended in the No. 23-ranked Rebels storming out of Auburn Arena with a 63-61 escape-act victory Saturday night.
Good teams find ways to win tough ball games, and bad teams find ways to lose them. Check out several ways Auburn held the upper hand:
- Ole Miss, typically a mediocre foul-shooting team, refused to accept free points for nearly the entire affair. The Rebels missed their first eight free-throw attempts of the game, waiting until 6 minutes, 28 seconds remaining when Murphy Holloway hit one of two, and was an abysmal 2-for-15 – no, really – for the first 39 minutes and 54 seconds of the game. Hold that thought.
- Auburn scored the game’s first nine points. Auburn pushed ahead by 10 later in the first half (33-23), its first double-digit advantage since Jan. 9. Both leads were quickly coughed up.
- Auburn’s perimeter players Denson, Shaq Johnson, and Josh Wallace shot 60 percent from the floor, while centers Rob Chubb and Asauhn Dixon-Tatum did not hit a field goal. Last week against Kentucky, the roles were essentially flipped.
- Ole Miss forward Aaron Jones, 0-for-2 from deep coming into the night, banked in a three from the wing at the first-half buzzer. That fortuitous bounce shaved Auburn’s lead to two despite decidedly outplaying the visitor through 20 minutes.
All that nearly ceased to matter, when Auburn held the ball with the game tied at 61 and the final seconds ticking off. Denson crashed the lane, beat Henderson off the dribble and went up for a sky-hook left-handed layup, but it was blocked by help-side defender Holloway.
Then came Ole Miss’ last possession.
Meet Auburn’s newest villain, who happens to lead the conference in scoring. Henderson had had a relatively quiet night on the court (4-15 FG), compared to his back-and-forth jawing with the nearby student section, before he was fouled trying to create space for an inbounds pass with 6.4 seconds remaining.
Two-for-fifteen, the Rebels were from the line at that time. Henderson’s first delivery bounced off front rim, and dropped in for the go-ahead point.
His second was swished, and with Auburn devoid of timeouts, Frankie Sullivan’s desperation three was off the mark.
Henderson, a first-year Rebel after coming in from South Plains Junior College (he previously was part of Texas Tech and Utah), repeatedly popped his jersey and pounded his chest toward the crowd in taunting celebration.
Multiple Twitter accounts (including that of an Auburn athletic department official) alleged Henderson flipped off the student section with both hands. Online video didn’t prove that notion, but did show at least two students were returning the favor.
The SEC did not immediately release any commentary on the potential incident.
At any rate, it’s four straight losses for the Tigers. Although the Jungle was jumping – the announced attendance of 8,740 was energetically involved from the tip to the horn – the Tigers (8-11, 2-4 SEC) couldn’t knock off the league-leading Rebels (17-2, 6-0) who were a tad weary from playing its second game in three nights.
Auburn coach Tony Barbee could agree the Tigers played harder and played better than they have recently, but it wasn’t enough to land in the win column.
“They were fighting their tails off to win,” Barbee said, “but it is a key indication that when we don’t care who gets the glory … we are a pretty good team.”
Without Denson’s renaissance, Auburn might’ve gotten rolled. The Shaw product certainly appears to be back in the swing of things, attacking the rim and exploding for 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting.
“After the Vanderbilt game, I wasn’t too happy about my performance,” said Denson, who hadn’t made a basket in his previous two games back from a stress fracture in his foot. “So I came back just rehabbed and practiced and, 100 percent now as you could see.”
Sullivan picked up two early fouls – including a double technical along with Jones from Ole Miss – and therefore was limited to seven first-half minutes. He came out firing after halftime, helping out Denson with 12 points but shot 3-from-11 from the field (2-9 3FG).
“Nobody was contesting my shots. I think seven of my nine threes were wide-open,” Sullivan said. “It’s just me knocking shots down. That’s my job for the team, I’m not doing it right now.
“So I’m definitely going to get back in the gym. I’m probably coming back later tonight. Pretty sure I am.”
- For the second straight home game, section 116 was peppered with head football coach Gus Malzahn, coordinators Rhett Lashlee and Ellis Johnson, and most their assistants as they hosted recruits taking their official visits.
Last weekend, the day after Auburn players watched the basketball team host Kentucky, Malzahn and his coaches snagged two verbal commits on their way home.
Malzahn also stepped up as the game’s celebrity letter, holding up the ‘n’ in AUBURN during a second-half media timeout.
Auburn’s won’t play another home men’s basketball game until the night of Feb. 6, capping off National Signing Day when the Tigers host in-state rival Alabama.
- Barbee, Denson and Sullivan didn’t disclose many details, but the Tigers held a team meeting to air out some grievances after last Wednesday’s 73-61 loss at Vanderbilt.
“We knew we weren’t performing well – it was more of individual performance, so we had a team meeting and everybody laid out on the table what they want to do and how they want to help the team. Once you get that out, then you can hold people accountable for what they say.”
- Sullivan’s not caving on the rest of the season. Sound up on the Tigers’ senior leader: “I think the way we’ve been practicing and everybody stepping up, it’s going to be a rock and roll for a lot of teams when we come up to their house or when they come here. That’s not just coming from me – if you talk to anybody on the team, that’s our mindset from here on out. We’re not going to be the ones getting punched every game. We’ll be doing the punching from now on out.”
Final Thought: Just to reiterate, good basketball teams find ways to win games, and bad teams find ways to lose them.
Next up: Wednesday at Georgia (8-11, 2-4), 7 p.m. ET, CSS