Shoulders slumped and heads hung after taking the 68-54 beating from Ole Miss in the SEC tournament first round. The scene was like any other elimination-game aftermath.
But there was far more swirling around the Tiger program after the loss. Afternoon reports of a federal point-shaving investigation focused on suspended guard Varez Ward dwarfed anything played between white lines.
Still, coach Tony Barbee and players Kenny Gabriel and Frankie Sullivan promised the potentially damaging allegations didn’t factor into the foul-plagued loss. Before taking post-game questions, Barbee deferred to a university-released statement on the investigation.
“We weren’t distracted at all,” Gabriel said. “We knew that we came down to New Orleans to play basketball and put everything else aside. We just wanted to focus on this game and this game only. If we won, we’d focus on Tennessee. We just came down here with a focused mindset.”
Sullivan said it was all about the game plan, but that went out the window when foul trouble came early.
Ole Miss (19-12) reached the bonus less than five minutes into the game and wasn’t whistled for a foul of its own for nearly 10 minutes. Gabriel went to the bench after getting his third foul 3:06 into the game. He fouled out in the closing moments after playing a season-low 13 minutes with 11 points.
Barbee said he “had no issue with the officiating,” but his team had a hard time managing without its second-leading scorer on the floor.
“Sometimes as a basketball player, you’re going to get two or three fouls in a first half,” Gabriel said. “You just have to battle through it. Calls aren’t always going to go our way all the time. So, that said, we were only down five at halftime.”
Ole Miss didn’t gain much separation since it made just 8-of-15 free throws in the first half. The league’s worst free-throw shooting team in the league was 13-for-17 after halftime, though.
Still, the Rebel lead was just three with 9:10 to play after an 8-1 Auburn run. Ole Miss went nearly six minutes without a field goal.
Rebel coach Andy Kennedy referenced Auburn’s point-shaving allegations against when poking fun at his team’s drought.
“About through the second half, I thought that Terrance (Henry) had joined them, joined the scam,” Kennedy said.
Rebel Nick Williams blew things open from there.
The Ole Miss junior from Mobile scored nine of the next 11 Rebel points after Auburn made it a one-possession game. Williams finished with a game-high 22 after making 4-of-8 attempts from 3-point range.
“I felt like I was in a rhythm and I made a couple moves and got some easy looks,” Williams said.
Auburn (15-16) struggled with its shooting touch and couldn’t compete with the Rebels around the rim.
The Tigers made were 5-for-21 on 3-pointers. Sullivan was 1-for-11from behind the arc and 3-for-4 inside it to finish with a team-high 15. Chris Denson added 11 coming off the bench.
The rebounding disparity was 45-21 in favor of the Rebels who got 19 second-chance points off 19 offensive rebounds.
All is not lost for the Auburn program, Barbee promised. Regardless of records or scandals, he envisions a bright future for Tiger basketball.
“When you take over a program, obviously a lot of times you get a program like this, because it’s not ready-made and you got to build it and you got to grow it,” Barbee said. “But what happens is when you’re doing that, there’s going to be some growing pains.
“And the best part about me and my background having gone through something very similar at UTEP, there’s a .., there’s nobody who wants to win more now than me.”