After switch from point to shooting guard, Cullen Neal shines in Rebels’ win over Auburn
AUBURN, Ala. – After the first 20 minutes Saturday night against Auburn, Cullen Neal went into the locker room scoreless, having attempted just one shot from beyond the arc.
Just as he had against Kentucky and Florida, the redshirt junior was struggling to find his touch on his outside shooting. He had come into the game averaging just 2.0 points per game in league play and was searching for offensive rhythm from the perimeter. Meanwhile, his teammates were having difficulty defending Tigers’ freshman guard Mustapha Heron, who had 12 points on 4 of 7 shooting after the first 20 minutes and was the primary reason for Auburn’s 41-33 halftime lead.
After halftime, however, things changed in a good way for Neal and Ole Miss (10-5, 1-2 SEC). Neal scored all of his 13 points in the second half, including going 3 of 6 from 3-point range to help the Rebels defeat the Tigers 88-85 for Ole Miss’ first conference win of the season.
Neal just needed one shot to fall to break out of his scoring slump, and that one came from deep at the 12:14 mark of the second half, giving Ole Miss a 53-51 lead. At that point, the Rebels had outscored Auburn (10-5, 0-3) 20-10.
Neal’s performance could not have come at a better time as senior forward Sebastian Saiz was seeing double teams all night long. After constantly being asked questions about others helping Saiz on the offensive end, Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy could finally take a deep breath and rejoice for a moment–especially with respect to Neal’s shooting.
“I was just proud he knocked down wide open looks,” Kennedy said of Neal, who played 22 minutes against the Tigers and went 4 of 7 overall from the field.
“He’s a good shooter, especially when he’s set. We tried to put him in actions, and let him do what he does, and he made good plays for us down the stretch.”
Andy Kennedy on Cullen Neal
A timely move
Neal’s performance wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the genius of Kennedy moving him out of the point guard slot and placing him at shooting guard. Redshirt junior Deandre Burnett was the primary ball handler for Ole Miss, while Neal was running off screens, getting ready for the basketball to come his way.
The good thing is that Neal is comfortable playing either guard position, since it’s something he has done since he first started playing basketball as a kid. Once the switch was made, Neal wasn’t uptight about playing off the ball. He didn’t feel a sense of urgency to perform well, because he’s played basketball long enough to know shooting slumps will come and go–you just have to be patient throughout, knowing a breakthrough will eventually come.
Neal knows all shooters have an off night occasionally, but experience has taught him it’s best to stay the course and keep working on improving as a shooter–and not let past games disrupt the present.
“I was just trying to stay aggressive. I know I haven’t played very well (in first two SEC games). I was kind of disappointed in myself, but I continued working hard, and kept playing hard.”
(Feature image credit: Dakota Sumpter/Auburn Athletics)