REBS TAKE FOURTH WIN ON SEC ROAD
By Gene Phelps
AUBURN, Ala. Ole Miss is definitely going dancing.
The SEC Western Division champions wanted to make sure they would be invited to this season's Big Dance, a.k.a, the NCAA Tournament, so they made a statement Saturday in their final regular season game at Auburn, defeating the Tigers 71-63 at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum for their 19th victory.
"Our guys came out on a mission today," Ole Miss coach Rob Evans said. "We talked before the game about making sure we do everything we can to take the question of whether we belong in the (NCAA) tournament out of the selection committee's hands.
"Hopefully, this leaves no doubts."
The victory gives Ole Miss a 19-7 record heading into this week's SEC Tournament in Memphis. The Rebels, who finished 11-5 in league play, are the West's top seed and will play at noon in Friday's second round. The opponent will be the winner of Thursday's game between Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
"Coach Evans told us we weren't a lock with 18 wins," Ole Miss guard Keith Carter said. "We could have folded and said we won the West. This 19th win is real favorable for us. This was a big win."
The Rebels clinched sole ownership of the division title, the first regular season crown in the program's history, with a 74-68 win Wednesday over LSU in Oxford.
Against Auburn, junior forward Ansu Sesay, usually "Mr. Muscle" inside, had a highlight-tape afternoon shooting from the perimeter to lead the Rebels.
He scored a game-high 27 points, knocking down 4-of-5 3-pointers in his 21-point second half. Not a bad outing when you consider that he was 7-of-42 from 3-point range this season.
"In the second half, I felt like I had to take it over," said Sesay, who added 11 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the year. "I was just out there having fun."
Sesay nailed his first 3-pointer, the first basket of the second half for either team, to give Ole Miss a 34-25 lead. He went on to score 14 points over the next 12 minutes as the Rebels went up 49-41 on his final 3-pointer with 8 minutes, 13 seconds left.
"Ansu can shoot," Evans said. "I've been asking him to attack the basket all year to help us inside. Today they backed off him and he shot. Ansu takes what the defense gives him. He's a complete player."
Carter scored on a layup and Sesay sank two free throws on back-to-back possessions to give the Rebels their biggest lead, 60-47, with 4:50 remaining.
Auburn remained in striking distance with its full-court pressure, which forced some turnovers.
Down the stretch, Auburn senior guard Wes Flanigan, who had been held scoreless, went wild. He scored 14 consecutive points, including a 5-foot jumper in the lane with 1:03 remaining to trim the Rebels' lead to 67-63.
Ole Miss wrapped up the key victory at the free throw line with Sesay, Carter and Joezon Darby hitting freebies in the final 42 seconds.
The Rebels shot just 38 percent in the first half, but led 31-25 at halftime thanks to the inside play of forward Anthony Boone, who scored 11 points, and their defense, which held Auburn to 38 percent shooting.
For Ole Miss, Carter finished with 14 points. Pat Burke paced Auburn with 21.
Rebel Ramblings: In case you're wondering, here are the NCAA first- and second-round sites: West - Salt Lake City, Tucson; East - Winston, Salem, N.C., Pittsburgh; Midwest - Auburn Hills, Mich., Kansas City, Mo.; Southeast - Memphis, Charlotte.
Ole Miss finished the regular season with a 4-4 road record in the SEC.