By John Zenor/The Associated Press
AUBURN, Ala.— The Auburn Tigers were halfway to another lopsided loss to Ole Miss.
Their shots weren’t falling while Dundrecous Nelson and the Rebels couldn’t seem to miss.
Then Kenny Gabriel scored 15 of his career-high 24 points in the second half and Chris Denson hit four straight free throws in the final 35 seconds to help Auburn cap a 76-73 comeback victory on Wednesday night.
“In the first half, we were a step behind on defense and on offense we couldn’t put the ball in the hole,” Gabriel said. “In the second half we came out real together as a team. Everybody told each other we’re going out there to win the game. That’s what we did.”
The Tigers (10-19, 3-12 Southeastern Conference) rallied from a 20-point first-half deficit and survived a wild final sequence when the teams swapped turnovers in a 2-second span. They shot 56 percent in the second half (14 of 25) after hitting just 23 percent in the first (6 of 26).
It was the second biggest margin Auburn has overcome to win behind a 22-point rally against Louisville in 1995. The Tigers got their third victory this season after trailing by at least 17 points.
“It can beat you down, the wins and losses,” Tigers coach Tony Barbee said. “These guys have not let it beat them down. Very easily they could have folded up tent.”
Ole Miss (18-12, 6-9) had a couple of chances for the go-ahead basket in the final seconds before Nelson’s 3-point attempt from behind halfcourt hit off the backboard at the buzzer.
The Rebels’ full-court press forced a turnover with 16 seconds left after Chris Warren’s 3-pointer cut Auburn’s lead to 74-73. They gave it right back when Warren lost the ball out of bounds.
Ole Miss then forced a bad pass by Earnest Ross that Nelson picked off. He passed inside to Nick Williams, who couldn’t control the ball.
“We had a big steal, but we just couldn’t make a big play,” Rebels coach Andy Kennedy said.
It went back to Auburn and Denson for two more free throws with 2.1 seconds left.
The Rebels had won the first meeting 90-59 on Feb. 16 in Auburn’s most lopsided loss of the season. They threatened to run away with this one early, too.
The Tigers then opened the second half on a 16-5 run, including Gabriel’s 11 points and a pair of 3-pointers in the first 45 seconds.
“It gave them life and energized their crowd,” Kennedy said. “And then we were in a war from that point forward.”
Auburn was coming off back-to-back two-point defeats in a four-game skid.
Ross added 15 points, while Chubb and Denson had 11 apiece. Chubb scored six straight points in a 90-second sequence to push Auburn’s lead to four points with 1:33 left. All of his points came in the second half.
Gabriel had seven rebounds and made 3 of 5 3-pointers and 7 of 8 free throws.
“I don’t know if we’ve seen a game like this from him since the first exhibition game,” Barbee said. “Kenny is this good, but you’ve just got to believe he can do it, every second of the game, every game.
“Playing that aggressive, we’ve been looking for that a long time.”
The Tigers made 9 of 10 free throws in the final 1:33 to keep the Rebels from overtaking them. They were 31 of 40 from the line in the game.
Warren, the SEC’s No. 2 scorer, scored 10 points but was 3-of-16 shooting and made just one of his 10 3-point attempts — though that was the big one late.
Terrance Henry had 13 points, but he and Warren were among four Ole Miss players who fouled out.
Auburn took a 72-67 lead, matching its biggest of the game, with 1:03 left on Gabriel’s two free throws. He was fouled after grabbing the rebound when Tony Neysmith missed his second attempt from the line after making the first.
But Warren was fouled attempting a 3-pointer five seconds later, and the nation’s leading free throw shooter hit all three from the line before making a 3.
That’s when they traded turnovers, and Ole Miss couldn’t get another shot off until Nelson’s last-gasp try.
Nelson had helped the Rebels surge to a 41-25 halftime lead. He had 19 points and six 3-pointers in the half, making his first five. The 5-foot-11 freshman, who was making his third start, hadn’t scored more than 17 points or hit more than three 3-pointers coming into the game.
The whole team cooled off in the second half.
“We came out as if we already had the game over with at the half because we had the big lead,” Nelson said. “We just came out flat.”