AUBURN, Ala.—After trailing by as much as 14, the No. 4 Auburn Tigers rallied in Oxford to defeat the Ole Miss Rebels 80-71. The Tigers have now won 13 straight games, the third longest streak of the Bruce Pearl era.
The Tigers trailed by six to start the second half, and the two teams traded shots and tried to find rhythm in the first six minutes of second half action. After a pair free throws from Matthew Murrell made it 53-47 in favor of Ole Miss, a Wendell Green Jr. three from long range ignited a huge 11-0 Auburn run.
Ole Miss would tie it back up at 58-58 but the Tigers kept coming, with a 13-2 run out of a timeout to extend their lead to 11 with four and a half minutes remaining. Another late run from the Rebels got them to within four, but Jabari Smith answered with a three, and the Rebels could never get back in it.
Walker Kessler led the way for the Tigers with 20 points, 10 rebounds, seven blocks and four steals. Kessler had combined for just 6 points in the last two games, fouling out in both games.
“The first two games were frustrating, but it was fun to play and get all of that frustration out,” Kessler said of his big performance against Ole Miss.
Auburn shot 50% from the field and 32.5% from three after struggling from beyond the arc in the first half. Despite a solid offensive performance, defense was key for the Tigers down the stretch. They stole the ball 10 times and blocked nine Ole Miss shots, holding Ole Miss to just 27 points in the second half after the Rebels exploded for 44 in the first half.
Ole Miss played near perfect basketball in the first half, shooting 54.8% from the field and 50% from 3. They led by 13 with just over a minute remaining in the first half when the Tigers went on a 7-0 run led by two steals and three free throws from K.D. Johnson. Johnson finished with 14 points and 3 steals.
The Rebels shot 30.4% from the field in the second half and 20% from the three-point line. The Tigers defense also forced nine second half turnovers.
“It’s what won the Alabama game and it's what won the game tonight, our second half defense,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said.
Pearl credited the combination of Johnson, Kessler, Wendell Green Jr. and Jabari Smith for leading the way tonight and the group combined for 63 of Auburn’s 80 points. Green also finished the game with seven assists.
The Tigers are now 5-0 in the SEC, winners of 13 straight and a legitimate contender for a No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll, which would be the first in school history. Pearl acknowledged the significance of such an achievement.
"We want to have the No. 1 business school. We want to have the No. 1 engineering school. We want to have the No. 1 football team, the No. 1 gymnastics team. We're an everything school," Pearl said.
Auburn will be back home in Auburn Arena on January 19 for a matchup with the 5-12 Georgia Bulldogs, losers of six straight. Some may already be setting their sights on Auburn’s Saturday afternoon matchup with No. 18 Kentucky (14-3, 4-1). Ole Miss will be staying home for a January 18 matchup with Missouri.
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