Auburn controlled things early, late, and save for a short stretch right after halftime, had little trouble in dispatching Ole Miss 77-64 tonight at Auburn Arena.
The Tigers got a big boost from the start from Wendell Green, Jr., who was able to find his stroke from three-point range, but Walker Kessler was the story tonight as he set the single-season record for blocks in Auburn history, and nearly notched his third triple-double in the process. Zep Jasper also turned in his best offensive game as a Tiger, burying 4-5 threes and tying for the team lead in points with 15.
With the win, Auburn improves to 25-3 overall, and 13-2 in SEC play. Heading into the penultimate weekend of conference play, the Tigers need to finish the last three games at 2-1 to claim a share of the regular season title, and the top seed in the SEC Tournament. Tonight was one step forward, and an important one that seemed to involve more players and help the team as a whole continue to find a shooting groove as we round the final turn of the regular season.
Auburn missed its first few shots from the floor to begin the game, but a Walker Kessler putback led into a Green three that he swished home to put the Tigers ahead 7-2 three minutes in. Ole Miss battled back to take an 11-9 lead, but back-to-back threes from Wendell Green reclaimed the lead for Auburn at 15-11, and a Devan Cambridge three-point play pushed the margin to 20-11 before the Rebels could answer.
Zep Jasper hit a fadeaway jumper at the midpoint of the first half to give the Tigers a 22-13 lead, and then he hit his first of four threes moments later to push the lead even further. Ole Miss got within a 30-26 deficit in the final few minutes of the first half, but a Jabari Smith three ended any real threat, and moments later Walker Kessler made history.
That block gave him the single-season record over Kyle Davis, whose 126 blocks previously held the mark in the 2002-03 season.At the end of the half Wendell Green drove and scored on a smooth layup with :03 remaining in the half to build a 43-31 halftime lead for the Tigers.
Like we’ve seen several times this season, Auburn was lifeless out of the half, and Ole Miss made their biggest run of the game. The Rebels reeled off a 9-0 spurt, pulling within one possession before the under-16 timeout. Out of the break Jabari Smith swished a pair of free throws, then Walker Kessler had two dunks in two trips down the floor, and Devan Cambridge then ended any hope the Rebels had of coming back.
A jumper from Jabari reestablished the double-digit lead at 53-43 on the next possession, and Auburn increased the lead to 64-49 by the under-8 timeout thanks to another three from Jasper to send it to the break. In the end, the Tigers cruised to comfort and even put the walk-ons in, where Chandler Leopard hit a three to cap the victory for Auburn.
- Walker Kessler is insane. Not just because of the blocks he had tonight, which have become commonplace, but everything else he did. The scoring, the defense away from the hoop, and even leading a fastbreak and dishing to Devan for that and-1 opportunity. I would love it if he decided he was crazy about Auburn and wanted to stay, but he’s making himself more and more money every single time out.
- Over the last few games, people have been talking about guard play, and tonight Auburn brought it. Both Wendell Green and Zep Jasper put in great performances, with Zep opening up the offensive game and Wendell getting saucy with some of those threes and assists. If the Tigers really develop a reliable offensive game from the guards, and they don’t have to rely on Jabari or Walker going off, there are fewer than 4-5 teams that can beat us.
- Three-point shooting tonight was above the national average yet again. Auburn hit 36% from deep after going for 50% against Vandy (thanks Jabari) and 36% against Florida. That output comes after six games where the best shooting day they had was going 26% against Oklahoma.
- The schedule sets up like this... beat Tennessee and the 1-seed/regular season outright title is all but assured. Auburn needs to win out to guarantee that outright championship since Kentucky is a game behind, but the Cats have to play at Arkansas this weekend, and Tennessee gets Arkansas again next weekend. Magic number for a banner is two wins, magic number for the outright title is still three. Auburn could really take care of business this weekend if Kentucky can lose and the Tigers can beat Tennessee. That would clinch a regular season title share for Auburn, and they’d just need to win 1⁄2 of the final games for a total championship.
Auburn takes to the road for a humongous battle with Tennessee this Saturday afternoon. Tip-off from Thompson-Boling Arena comes at 3 PM CST.