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Hoops Report: A sign of things to come

Finishing strong... or beginning strong?

Wednesday night’s game was it — the reason why Auburn Arena was built, the reason why Tony Barbee was hired, the reason why Auburn basketball so desperately, desperately needs to make its return to prominence, and to contend for SEC crowns and NCAA tournament berths.

I’m talking about the celebration, the joy, and the atmosphere that filled Auburn Arena following the Tigers’ 76-73 upset win over Ole Miss in Auburn’s final home game of the season.

It began with the festive and unique atmosphere of a bowl game, with a color-on-color uniform matchup and with fireworks shooting out of the goal during the introduction of the starting line-ups’. It ended with the team sprawled into the student section, getting high-five’d, hugged, and patted on the back.

In between was the second-largest comeback in the history of Auburn basketball. The Tigers fell to a 20 point deficit at one point in the first half, as the lights-out shooting from the Ole Miss back court seemed to doom Auburn just as it had in Oxford earlier this season. Ole Miss freshman Dundrecous Nelson exploded for 30 points in the game, and Rebel senior Chris Warren added another 12 to create a catch-and-shoot matchup that the Tigers’ zone seemingly shouldn’t have been prepared to face.

But Auburn displayed the same heart and never-quit attitude that they’ve displayed all season, roaring back to life in the second half, which they started on a 29-9 run. They never stopped playing; not when they were down 20, and not even when Ole Miss retook the lead in the final moments.

The deciding play was perhaps a microcosm of their fight and energy throughout the entire season: Auburn, up 1 with fewer than 15 seconds on the clock, loses the ball on the inbounds to Ole Miss right under the Rebel basket… but E.J. Ross scraps and claws and pries the ball loose. It bounces free bewteen someone’s legs.  Chris Denson grabs it and runs literally the length of the court, runs down the clock and sets up two potentially game-sealing free throws.

The player of the game for the Tigers was Kenny Gabriel, not just his 24 points and 7 rebounds, but his leadership down the stretch. In those final moments, he stood on the foul line with Denson, pounding him on the chest. Kenny Gabriel is going to be the rock that the 2011-2012 season is built on.

Meanwhile, Rob Chubb put in a stellar showing to end his up-and-down series of home performances this season, putting in 11 points and grabbing 3 rebounds in just 15 minutes off the bench. Auburn’s second leading scorer behind Gabriel was E.J. Ross, who had 15 and 5, and, like Gabriel, did an excellent job of producing while avoiding that 5th foul down the stretch.

Chris Denson also scored 11, and, in the end, with 2.1 seconds on the game clock, sunk both free throws to give Auburn a final 3 point lead. Nelson’s halfcourt shot to tie it for Ole Miss missed. The Tigers won.

And Auburn Arena, even though it wasn’t at full capacity, and even though there were some holes of open spaces, got loud, just as it has at times all season.

After the teams shook hands, Tony Barbee walked over to the student section to wave and give a thumbs up in appreciation, and told the team to come with him. Josh Wallace, after giving a small wave and reluctantly walking to the tunnel and off the court, then saw his coach, and like a kid given permission to do something he always wanted, streaked back across the floor and launched into the bleachers, as did the rest of the team, to celebrate. It was pandemonium. It was elation. Somebody even hugged Rod Bramblett.

The high-fives, pats on the back, and celebration eventually turned into somewhat of a makeshift Tiger Walk behind press row, with the team going by each of the students supporting them, ending with Mike McNeil, T-Bell, and the football players congratulating them by the tunnel.

It was an amazing night, from beginning to end. And, most importantly, it was hopefully an indicator of not where this program should be or could be, but where this program and this team will be, sooner than later.

The on-paper result of the 2010-2011 season won’t have anything to do with the players not being SEC caliber like some have said, because they are. And it won’t be because of a lack of coaching, because there isn’t a lack. The results will be because of some other reason, or some other excuse, to which there isn’t much point in finding anyway, because pretty soon Auburn people won’t need any reasons or excuses.

Pretty soon, Auburn basketball will be winning again, and it will be these players and these coaches that will be doing it.

We saw it — it — Wednesday night.

Photo via.

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