Before a packed house at Auburn Arena on Saturday, Ole Miss picked itself a dog fight with an up-and-coming Auburn squad and escaped with an 86-79 victory. Used Volvo salesman Bruce Pearl has built himself a scrappy Tiger bunch in his return to coaching collegiate basketball -- going so far as to down LSU at home on Thursday -- but greasy histrionics and throaty gripes at the refs eventually lost out to an experienced and deep Rebel team.
This game was a tale of two halves, if ever there was. And, to be sure, things hung very much in the balance until Auburn's Jordan Granger decided to tussle with Anthony Perez with 9:31 remaining and earn himself a technical foul. Following Granger's ejection, Ole Miss' size carried the day, with a welcome dose of Stefan Moody to boot.
The Rebels are now 16-7 overall and 7-3 in the SEC, which slots them into a three-way tie for second place overall in the conference, betwixt Arkansas and Texas A&M. Coming into Saturday's game, Joe Lunardi considered Ole Miss a firm 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and a tooth-and-nail battle in hostile Tiger territory certainly improves the Rebs' tourney résumé.
Here then are three takeaways from Saturday's scrap in Auburn:
1. A deep bench is always an asset, especially in March.
Anthony Perez sure seems like a recent addition to this Rebel squad, and with good reason. In the 11 games before his re-emergence against Florida, yeoman Anthony scored just 14 points in total, and AK had seemingly pulled his season's plug. In his four outings since, including his 10 against Auburn Saturday, dude has poured in 31 welcome points. And the guy just exudes energy on the floor: grinning and laughing when Granger tosses him at the scorers' table in frustration; the team mauling him in front of the Tiger bench as Pearl suffers a conniption. Perez knows, man, he's in your head.
Auburn is a physical team, if not the biggest, so their grunt-and-push style of play threw Jarvis Summers and Stefan Moody off their games early. Thankfully, Snoop White was on hand to lead Ole Miss with 20 points on 6 rebounds and a nifty steal for good measure. Moody and Summers did power back in the second half with 15 and 13 points respectively, still, it was good to see guys like Martavious Newby step up with a hard-won seven points and seven rebounds. With guys like Snoop and Perez coming into their own and capable of making their presence felt immediately off the bench, the substitution calculus come tournament season becomes less worrisome than it felt last month.
2. Adaptability is also an asset, and the Rebs' second halves are proof positive.
In four of their last five wins, Ole Miss' second-half point-production has proven to be the difference maker (also, this explains why it just sorta feels like the Rebs are playing from behind at the start of the second half):
|Opponent||First Half Points||Second Half Points|
Those are some impressive turnarounds, and it speaks to Ole Miss' take-no-shit attitude that they're hungry enough to gut out these late comebacks. A deep bench helps, as does an amoebic and at times stifling defense that can give opposing attacks two or three different looks per possession. In fact, during Saturday's second half, Ole Miss' defensive zones slipped seamlessly between 1-3-1 and 2-3 sets as Auburn moved through transition. The Rebs got burnt a couple of times on the wings during the first half, but, again, it's a testament to these guys' patience among the fray that they can adapt and cover those early mistakes. And heck, when it's late and their zones grow soft, AK can throw them into man-defense with confidence and know that Sebastian Saiz, M.J. Rhett or Dwight Coleby will be there to block traffic.
3. Here comes the testing ground.
Auburn looked pretty gassed on Saturday, and that might have something to do with their week's Thursday-Saturday draw. Well, guess what, the Rebels pulled that card themselves next week and so travel to Florida on Thursday, February 12th, only to host Arkansas for a Valentine's Day second date. Ain't that cute. Ole Miss has certainly demonstrated endurance within individual games, but next week's 40-some-odd hours of rest should act as a good simulation for the raucous schedule of tournament season.
In any case, it's always fun to beat a Bruce Pearl squad on the road.