AUBURN — The effort was not lacking, the injured star was not helpless but the result was still the same.
Despite nine and 10-point leads in the first half and 18 points from Chris Denson, Auburn could not close out No. 23 Ole Miss as Frankie Sullivan’s buzzer-beater was short and the Tigers fell 63-61 before a crowd of 8,740 at Auburn Arena Saturday night. It is the fourth straight loss for Auburn (8-11, 2-4 SEC) which had three chances to take the lead after Denson tied the game at 61 with a minute left.
With 34.9 to go, Auburn went to Denson, who played his best game since returning from a foot stress fracture which sidelined him for four games. The 6-2 guard drove down the left side and went for a layup with 19 seconds to go but was blocked by Murphy Holloway.
“I think couple of plays before that the big man stepped up and I went around him and got the finish so the plan was to come off and attack the big man,” said Denson, who was 6-for-9 from the field and added six free throws. “I saw Frank’s man help and that’s part of me growing up and I should have made the right play and hit Frank in the corner.”
The block by Holloway sprung a fast break for Ole Miss (17-2, 6-0) but Shaq Johnson was able to catch Reginald Buckner and made what was a game-saving block at the time. Johnson was called for a dead-ball foul and Marshall Henderson (15 points) made both critical free throws with 6.4 to go.
“I’ve pretty much known all my life that free throws are contagious,” Henderson said. “We just got stuck and it happens but we found a way to win.”
Frankie Sullivan (12 points) attempted a game-winner from behind the arc but barely drew front iron and the Rebels, who went 4-for-17 from the free-throw line, escaped with a road win.
“The game wasn’t lost on that last play, the game was lost because we had some guys that again, wide-open looks all night long,” Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. “All night long and we shot 36 percent.”
After listless performances against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, Auburn showed a tenacity and intensity which was absent in the past week. Barbee said the team dealt with “petty stuff” since the loss in Nashville Wednesday and was glad to see his team respond.
“I’m not going into what we deal with in the locker room but every team goes through issues for whatever reason this time of the year,” he said. “The teams that don’t address them and let them fester, they can ruin your season. The teams that deal with them and address them then you can get back on a good flow and I thought we did that this week.”
LaDarius White had a season-high 17 points and Jarvis Summers added 14 for Ole Miss.
Henderson, the SEC’s leading scorer, was particularly boastful throughout the game, jawing with the Auburn student section throughout the night.
“To me, the greatest compliment, I think, this program had been given is when other people are paying to see you play,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “Auburn (was) 8-10 and they’ve lost three in a row. Having a sellout tonight, that was because Ole Miss had a rank in front of their name.”
Denson, who said he is “100 percent” now after claiming to be only “80 percent” following Wednesday’s loss, tied the game at 47 with 9:27 to go and followed up with a stunning play, running around the perimeter and cutting down the left side as the shot clock drew close to zero, leaping from well outside the lane and faking his shot while in midair and scoring over Buckner to give Auburn a 49-47 lead with 8:40 to go.
Auburn opened the game on a 9-0 run as Ole Miss missed its first seven field goals. The Tigers blew the early lead as Henderson scored nine of the Rebels’ first 11 points to tie the game at 11 with 13:22 to go in the first.
Josh Wallace (nine points) started a 13-3 Auburn run capped by back-to-back baskets from Denson as the Tigers went ahead 33-23 with 3:16 left in the first. Ole Miss responded again, ending the frame on an 8-0 run as Aaron Jones hit a buzzing-beating three-pointer — his first of the season on just three attempts — to cut the gap to 33-31 at halftime.