By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
NEW ORLEANS – Throughout this season, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy has encouraged his veteran players to take ownership in the team.
Thursday night in the opening round of the SEC tournament, Nick Williams was fully invested.
The Mobile, Ala., junior exploded in the second half with 15 of his career-high 22 points, leading the Rebels to a 68-54 win over an Auburn team rocked earlier in the day by a report on allegations of point-shaving.
The win matches Ole Miss against Tennessee in today’s quarterfinals at 6:30 p.m. A win for the Rebels (19-12) against the No. 2-seeded Vols would greatly enhance their NCAA Tournament possibilities.
Thursday, there wasn’t much of a possibility that Auburn (15-16) would advance once two things became clear: Williams was on, and Auburn’s best player, senior forward Kenny Gabriel, was in major foul trouble and unable to make the impact he does when the Tigers are at their best.
“Nick did a good job of reading screens and putting himself in position,” Kennedy said. “He knocked down some big shots, and we tried to milk that as long as we could.”
While the Rebels milked away, Auburn’s cow-tipping efforts were unsuccessful.
Williams capped the game’s most critical two possessions with a 3-pointer for a 49-42 lead with 8 minutes, 33 seconds to play.
Auburn was down by three when it rebounded its own missed free throw, but reserve center Willy Kouassi was unable to convert a layup to make it a one-point game.
The Tigers fouled Ole Miss guard LaDarius White on the other end. He made the first free throw, missed the second, but Aaron Jones rebounded and got the ball to Williams just left of the key.
Gabriel found his stroke for a brief time, hitting two 3-pointers within 81 seconds, but the Rebels hit shots on three straight trips during the same stretch, two by Williams.
“With the foul trouble we had, we had some smaller guards on him. He’s a big, physical guard, and he took advantage, got up over the top and hit some shots,” Auburn coach Tony Barbee said.
Murphy Holloway had a double-double for Ole Miss with 13 points and 13 rebounds, but he missed his last four shots and wasn’t an offensive factor in the second half.
Williams began the day averaging 10.2 points, third on the team in scoring. His outburst help off-set a sub-par night for leading scorer Terrance Henry, who was held to six points on 1 for 5 shooting.
When Williams had the “on feeling” he became faster and more aggressive getting to screens. He wanted the ball in his hands.
“They were teasing me about it. They’ve never seen me run that fast. They were setting screens and getting me open. Coach wanted me to shoot it, and I felt like I was in a rhythm. I made some moves and got some easy looks,” he said.
Led by Holloway’s 13 rebounds, Ole Miss dominated the glass for a 45-31 advantage.
Gabriel picked up three fouls in the first half. He played just 13 minutes and finished with 11 points.
Auburn’s other top scoring threat, guard Frankie Sullivan, had a team-high 15 points but was 1 for 11 from 3-point range, missing his last 11 attempts.
Auburn committed 24 fouls in the game, 10 before the Rebels were whistled for their first almost 10 minutes into the game. Ole Miss was 21 for 32 at the free throw line.
“We just wanted to be aggressive, to make sure we came into the tournament with an aggressive mindset,” Kennedy said. “The way to do that was to attack from the inside out. That led to a lot of fouls early. We were not terrible efficient from the free throw line then, but in the second half we did a better job.”