By David Brandt
AP Sports Writer
OXFORD – Playing without its leading scorer, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy worked hard at crafting an offensive strategy that would still allow his team to compete.
Not much of it worked, but the Rebels figured out a way to win anyway.
Derrick Millinghaus scored 16 points, Jarvis Summers added 14 and Ole Miss rallied to beat Auburn 65-62 on Thursday night in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
It wasn’t particularly pretty. The Rebels were outrebounded by a large margin, had a rough night from the free-throw line and struggled to get defensive stops in the final few minutes.
But the win is all that matters. Ole Miss had lost four of its last seven games coming into Thursday.
“The result is ultimately what shows progress,” Kennedy said. “We’re in a results-oriented business, so for that I’m excited.”
Aaron Jones added 12 points, seven rebounds, five blocks and five steals for the Rebels (10-4), who were playing without suspended leading scorer Marshall Henderson. LaDarius White added 10.
Ole Miss has won five straight in the series against the Tigers. The Rebels won despite being outrebounded 40-30 and giving up 19 offensive rebounds.
Auburn (8-4) was led by Chris Denson’s 28 points while KT Harrell added 11. Harrell missed a 3-pointer that could have tied the game on the final possession.
The loss snapped the Tigers’ four-game winning streak.
“I’m really proud of this group for battling, battling and battling to find a way to win a hard-fought game,” Kennedy said.
Henderson was suspended a total of three games – the season opener on Nov. 8 against Troy, the Auburn game and Saturday’s Mississippi State game – for on-and off-the-court issues during and following last season.
It was quickly apparent that the Rebels would miss Henderson’s scoring ability – especially from the perimeter. Ole Miss did enough to take a 31-28 halftime lead, but lost it early in the second half after a stretch of just two points in seven minutes.
Auburn’s backcourt of Harrell and Denson ranked one-two in the SEC in scoring coming into Thursday’s game, but foul trouble kept Harrell off the floor for a big chunk of the second half, so the offensive load fell to Denson.
The 6-foot-2 guard responded brilliantly, pouring in points from all over the court, though he missed his final five shots in a 10-of-25 performance. The problem was he didn’t have much help.
That allowed the Rebels to stay close. Ole Miss pushed ahead on back-to-back buckets by Jones – one on a 15-foot jumper and the other on a dunk – to give the Rebels a 62-57 lead with 1:42 remaining.
Jones also had a huge block with 25 seconds left, swatting away Malcolm Canada’s layup attempt that would have made it a one-possession game.
“It’s a big sigh of relief,” Jones said. “We’ve been losing a lot of (close) games.”
Ole Miss’ offensive performance without Henderson was a mixed bag. The Rebels were 7 of 14 (50 percent) from 3-point range, but just 12 of 21 (57.1 percent) on free throws.
It’s a disappointing loss for the Tigers, who had played their best basketball of the season coming into the Ole Miss game. Their four-game winning streak included victories over Boston College and Clemson.