For once, a close game finally went Auburn's way.
After losing back-to-back games on baskets in the final seconds, the Tigers finally prevailed in a nail-biter, rallying from a 20-point deficit to take a late lead — and hold it — in a 76-73 win against Ole Miss at the Auburn Arena on Wednesday.
Kenny Gabriel scored 24 points and Earnest Ross 15 for the Tigers (10-19, 3-12 SEC), who completed the second-biggest comeback in school history. They came back from 22 down to beat Louisville in 1995.
"This team has gotten better," Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. "It's not the same team from the beginning of the year. It's not even the same team from the beginning of the conference season. It's a totally different team."
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It was only the Tigers' second win in league play at the Auburn Arena, but it was perhaps their most exciting one. Auburn out-scored Ole Miss (18-12, 6-9 SEC) 51-32 in the second half, overcoming a career-high 30 points by Rebels guard Dundrecous Nelson, whose potential game-tying halfcourt heave at the final horn was just off target.
"I appreciate them," Barbee said. "They've given me everything they've got. They've given this university everything they've got. It can beat you down, the wins and losses, as a player. They could have folded up tent. But it speaks to their character."
It set off one of few celebrations in the arena this season for the home crowd. Afterward, Barbee doled out high-fives to students over the press table as a couple players rejoiced in the crowd.
"It felt good," Ross said. "Coming out in front of our home crowd, our last home game, to prove to the fans what they can look forward to next year, it's a very big win for us."
Auburn can still steal the West's No. 5 seed in the SEC tournament with a win against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., on Saturday.
Ole Miss, which beat Auburn by 31 points in Oxford two weeks ago, built what seemed like an insurmountable 41-25 lead into halftime thanks to Nelson, a freshman who was making his third career start. He topped his previous career-high of 17 by halftime, making 6 of his 7 3-pointers before the break.
But the Tigers, who shot only 23.1 percent in the first half, broke out of their offensive slump in the second half. Gabriel jumpstarted things with back-to-back 3-pointers in the first minute to cut the lead to 10.
"I don't know if we've seen a game like this out of Kenny since the first exhibition game," Barbee said while laughing. "How long ago was that?"
It was the start of a 29-9 run to open the second half for Auburn, which, following back-to-back driving layups by guard Chris Denson, turned a 16-point deficit into a four-point lead at 54-50 with 9:06 left.
Center Rob Chubb, who has come off the bench since returning from a suspension following his January arrest, played inspired basketball down the stretch. taking advantage of Ole Miss' foul trouble in the post.
The sophomore scored six straight points and added a block on the defensive end to give Auburn a 69-67 lead with 1:33 left. Chubb finished with 11 points and 3 rebounds.
"Chubb was big," Barbee said. "As their big guys got in foul trouble, we had a clear advantage. We ran some stuff to Chubb when it was nip-and-tuck. And he came through."
The Rebels hung close, however. Guard Chris Warren, the SEC"s second-leading scorer, hit a 3 with 21 seconds remaining to pull Ole Miss within 74-73. Warren finished with 12 points but was only 3-for-16 from the field.
Ole Miss forced a jump ball, tying up Denson to get a turnover with 16.8 seconds left, but the Rebels turned it over back to Auburn. Denson broke free up the court before getting fouled.
The freshman, who finished with 11 points, made both free throws to give the Tigers a three-point lead with 2.1 seconds to go that would hold up.
"We've almost made a habit about getting down and coming back," Chubb said. "It's going to be a problem for other teams when we stop getting that dry spell."