Auburn's ability to maintain a lead and carry it through to the end of the game did not get any better tonight. The Tigers took a 41-33 lead into halftime, but couldn't finish the drill against the Ole Miss Rebels.
The good news, though, is that in this one the Tigers didn't let the big lead slip away into a bad loss. They came back fighting and had a shot at the end to tie it up in the final seconds.
The Tigers went into the half with a good lead and were looking good. There were concerns - most notably the ankle sprain of Danjel Purifoy late in the half - but overall things were looking good. Auburn was playing strong defense, taking good shots, and they were keeping Ole Miss' offense in check.
In the second half, the Rebels adjusted and Auburn really missed Danjel Purifoy. The Auburn defense that was so controlling in the first half opened up easy three-point shots for the Rebels, and Ole Miss took advantage of it, shooting near 50% from beyond the arc and over 50% on field goals in the 2nd half.
One thing that definitely didn't help Auburn was Bruce Pearl being called for a technical foul for his yelling at the referrees. Pearl was in the refs' ears all night over Ole Miss big man Sebastian Saiz. Pearl believed the refs were letting him get away with throwing his elbows around a bit too much, and the refs eventually had enough of it.
Meanwhile, Auburn's offense was back to taking bad shots, giving Ole Miss the quick and easy transitions. The Rebels were making Auburn pay for it. On top of that, Auburn wasn't taking advantage of its trips to the foul line for much of the 2nd half, either. It was that failure at the line that ultimately doomed the Tigers in the end.
Unlike the Georgia game, this time the Tigers didn't go down lightly in the final minutes. Jared Harper was a beast in the final few minutes to cut the Ole Miss lead to 1 point with around 2 minutes to play. A turnover and a foul let Ole Miss get the lead back to five points with just over a minute to play, but Harper again cut it to three with two free throws. With Sebastian Saiz fouling out, the Tigers got the ball back on a horrible Ole Miss turnover and Harper was fouled shooting a three-pointer. He then dropped all three to tie the game at 80.
With 35 seconds left, though, Ole Miss drained a three-pointer that silenced the rocking Auburn Arena and gave the Rebels the big lead. It happened as so many have against Auburn this season: the Tigers left him wide open.
Auburn went down the court and Harper was fouled, but this time he only knocked down one of the two, which left it open for the Rebels to take a two-possession lead. Harper answered right back with an ice-cold three-pointer to cut the lead to one. That was it for the night for Harper, though, as he fouled out on the subsequent in-bounds pass.
In the final seconds, Auburn had a chance to tie the game and send it into overtime. TJ Lang took an open three-pointer, but it bounced off the rim to end the game and an 85-88 loss for the Tigers.
Jared Harper led the Tigers in scoring with a career-high 24 points. Mustapha Heron had 20, and Ronnie Johnson finished with 12.
1) Losing Purifoy hurt, but it wasn't the reason for the slump in the second half. It was back to business as usual with bad shots and letting the opposing team get wide open shots. Auburn desperately needs to get Purifoy back healthy soon, but I don't know how long he'll be out with his ankle sprain.
2) Free throws were the difference. No, they weren't the only factor. However, if Auburn hit even half of the many missed free throws in this one, then we're talking about an Auburn win.
3) Jared Harper is very good at this basketball thing. With Auburn down 12 and around 4 minutes to play, it was Harper who scored the next 11 Auburn points to give the Tigers the chance that they had. He's been so impressive and has the best three-point shot on the team to me. It's a shame he fouled out and couldn't get that final shot at the end.