Auburn forward Kenny Gabriel reacts from the bench at the end of Thursday's game against Mississippi.
NEW ORLEANS — Nick Williams blamed nerves for a couple badly missed shots in the opening minutes of Mississippi’s Southeastern Conference tournament opener against Auburn.
Fortunately for the Rebels, Williams calmed down in plenty of time to turn in a career performance.
Williams scored 22 points on a devastating mix of 3-pointers, midrange jumpers and driving floaters, and Mississippi defeated Auburn 68-54 in the first round of the SEC tournament on Thursday night.
“I was real nervous. You could tell by my first shot when I shot it over the rim,” said Williams, who hit 9 of 14 shots, including four 3s, in surpassing his previous career-best of 21 points. “You’ve just got to stay aggressive. I can’t get down on missed shots, and I had some easy ones early and I missed them. I got some in the second half and I knocked them down. So I’ve just got to keep pushing. The team needs me to score the ball and so that’s what I did.”
Murphy Holloway added 13 points and 13 rebounds for the Rebels (19-12), who have won four straight and might be able to make a case for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament should they upset Tennessee in their second-round game Friday night.
Frankie Sullivan scored 15 points for Auburn (15-16), which lost for the fourth time in five games on the same day the NCAA acknowledged that federal investigators are looking into point-shaving allegations against suspended Tigers guard Varez Ward.
Auburn coach Tony Barbee declined to address the allegations against Ward beyond saying that he did not believe it had any bearing on his team’s performance against Ole Miss.
“I didn’t think they were distracted,” Barbee said. “We were focused and ready to play.”
Rather, early foul trouble, particularly in the case of second-leading scorer and leading rebounder Kenny Gabriel, hindered the Tigers, he said. Gabriel, who came in averaging just over 12 points and nearly eight rebounds a game, was limited to only 13 minutes.
“We had some lineups out there that we didn’t have out there all year long. So it affected our ability a little bit to defend and rebound and to score,” Barbee said. “But give Ole Miss credit. They’re a tough, physical team and they took advantage of that on the interior.”
Mississippi shot 43.8 percent (21 of 48) and outrebounded Auburn 45-31. The Rebels had 19 offensive rebounds.
“Nick really got going for us in the second half and knocked down some big jump shots but ,early on, the reason that we were in the lead was that we were pursuing the ball off the offensive glass,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “It allowed us to stay in the game until we were able to string together some good offensive possessions.”
Gabriel and Chris Denson each scored 11 points for the Tigers, who were plagued by poor shooting much of the game, finishing at 32.7 percent (18 of 55).
Jarvis Summers added 12 points for the Rebels.
Williams hit consecutive 3s during a 12-4 Ole Miss run early in the second half that was capped by Demarco Cox’s tip-in and gave the Rebels their largest lead to that point at 42-30.
Auburn declined to fold, responding with an 11-3 run of its own that included fast-break baskets by Denson and Josh Wallace after Mississippi turnovers.
Denson’s free throw had the Tigers as close as 45-42 with 9:10 to go before Mississippi started to pull away again with the help of five straight points by Williams on his fourth 3 of the game and another jumper.
Williams later added a baseline jumper and a driving baseline floater to push the Rebels’ lead to 57-48, and Ole Miss retained control the rest of the way while Auburn missed a handful of 3s.
“He’s made some big shots for them all year long,” Barbee said of Williams. “He’s not necessarily a shooter, but he’s a guy that can make some shots. …. It wasn’t a surprise.”
After the game, some of Williams’ teammates teased him about how explosive he looked coming off of screens to get in position to shoot.
“It’s like they’ve never seen me run that fast before,” Williams said with a grin. “Coach wanted me to shoot and I felt like I was in a rhythm, and I made a couple moves and got some easy looks.”
Holloway had 10 of his points in the first half. His basket on a spin move in the lane, followed by his lob that set up Reginald Buckner’s alley-oop jam, gave Ole Miss a 22-17 lead.
Rob Chubb hit a couple short jumpers to trim Auburn’s deficit to 23-21, but Auburn did not hit from the field for the last 5:17 of the first half, while the Rebels’ Williams drained a 3 and midrange jumper to make it 28-21.
Denson’s free throws pulled Auburn to 28-23, and neither team scored again in the final minute before halftime.