Senior Marquis Daniels scored 25 points, pulled down eight rebounds and dished out four assists as the Tigers held on for the victory despite squandering a 13-point halftime lead. Jameer Nelson scored 32 points in what became a shootout between two great players, but in the end Daniels had the final answer.
"It was a great college basketball game," Coach Cliff Ellis said following the victory. "I thought from an offensive standpoint that Marquis Daniels put us on his back. From a defensive standpoint Derrick Bird did a great job on Nelson. We switched him off when he (Bird) got four fouls and he hit two threes in the overtime. We put Bird back on him and he didn't get a shot in the last couple of possessions. I thought that was huge for us. We had great senior play and I thought that was a great win for us against a very good basketball team."
A very deceptive player because of his ability to play both on the perimeter and in the paint, Daniels used his size and guile to torch the Hawks in regulation and overtime. His three-pointer near the end of regulation gave the Tigers a two-point lead but Nelson would answer back to tie the game and send it into overtime. In the extra period, Daniels would score five of Auburn's eight points to secure the victory.
Marquis Daniels works against Tyrone Barley.
"I watched him on tape and it seemed like he just played a very workman-like game," St. Joseph's Coach Phil Martelli said of his impressions of Daniels before Friday's game. "He wasn't a great three-point shooter, more of a slasher. I didn't believe his size. I kept reading that his size was 6-7 or so and that's not what I was seeing on tape. I just kept probing until I had a much better feel for his game. He's a multi-dimensional player in a time now when everyone is pegged into a position. He played like a senior and he played like an all-league player. I was favorably impressed, particularly that he would take that three-point shot. I figured he would drop his head and try to drive the ball to the basket and he would be the guy."
The shot Martelli referred to was perhaps the biggest shot of the season for the Tigers and of Daniels' career. Down emotionally after allowing the Hawks to come back from a big halftime deficit to take a 55-54 lead on a Nelson shot with just 18.1 seconds left in the game, Auburn turned to Daniels and said ‘take us home.' Calling a timeout with 11.9 seconds remaining to set up a play, Ellis and his staff had to look no farther than Daniels when deciding what to do. Catching the ball at the top of the key, he set his feet after faking out St. Joseph's guard Tyrone Barley and drilled a long three to give the Tigers a two-point lead.
"It was just a matter of determination," Daniels said of his play at the end of the game. "I know he wanted to win and I wanted to win. It was just a matter of stepping up and taking big shots. He made some shots and my shots were falling for me as well. Neither one of us could have done it without our teammates. I know my teammates played a great game tonight and for playing well in their first NCAA Tournament."
Despite Daniels' shot that gave the Tigers the lead, this game would be far from over thanks to the play of Nelson. Driving the lane, the 6-0 guard got into the body of Auburn center Kyle Davis and drew a foul with just 0.5 seconds remaining. Although Davis looked to avoid most of the contact, the refs ruled that he got just enough of Nelson to put him at the line. Once there the fantastic guard made both shots to send the game to overtime.
Things looked bleak for the Tigers in overtime as Nelson drained a three-pointer from the top of the key with 3:25 left to give the Hawks a 60-57 advantage. Following a Marco Killingsworth basket, Nelson dropped in another three with 2:37 remaining and just like that St. Joseph's had a four-point lead. That's when Daniels took over. Driving the lane, he completed a dunk with 1:36 left to cut the lead to 63-61.
After Nelson missed a short range shot in the lane, Daniels came down and took a pass from Killingsworth in the lane. Turning to the basket, he scored over the smaller Barley and drew the foul. Finishing the three-point play, he gave the Tigers a 64-63 lead with just 0.44 seconds left in what had been a terrific basketball game.
Marco Killingsworth drives the lane against the Hawks. He was second on the team with 15 points Friday.
With Bird back on Nelson, Auburn clamped down on the Hawks with the next possession. Forcing a shot by Nelson from just outside the lane, Davis just got a hand on the ball before in went out of bounds with just 19.9 seconds left and six seconds on the shot clock. That's when Lewis Monroe made the defensive play of the game. Guarding Barley, he got defensive position and drew a charge with 14.2 seconds left in overtime. That meant get the ball in bounds to Bird and hope for the best.
Getting the ball quickly to Nathan Watson who returned it to him, Daniels moved up the court before spotting Bird near half court. The senior drew a foul with 8.5 seconds left and Auburn clinging to a one-point lead. In the biggest pressure situation of his career, Bird missed the first of two free throws before dropping the second to make it 65-63 Auburn. A last ditch effort at winning the game came up empty as a Pat Carroll's desperation three-pointer fell harmlessly out of bounds with 0.7 seconds left in the game. Daniels threw the ball down the court as Davis batted it down to end the game.
The first half was vintage Auburn basketball as the Tigers played suffocating defense on Nelson, limiting him to just five points. While the shots didn't fall, Daniels and company were able to do just enough to keep a comfortable lead. Things started well after Davis picked up a foul just seconds into the game and sent Alexandre Sazonov to the free throw line. Making 1-2, he gave the Hawks the early lead. The lead was short lived as Daniels came down just moments later to drain a three-pointer and make it 3-1. Nelson hit a three of his own to make it 4-3 and St. Joseph's would never lead again in the first half.
Killingsworth scored his first basket of the game, and back-to-back baskets by Davis made it 9-6 Tigers. The second came on a Chris Porter style follow slam dunk of a Daniels miss in the lane. Sending the crowd into oohs and aahs, the dunk inspired the Tigers, who went on an 8-2 run to build a nine-point lead.
Following a Sazonov basket, Bird drained his first basket of the game, a three-pointer from the right wing, to make it 20-10 Auburn. The lead would remain at least nine points the rest of the half, the last time on a Jones basket with just under three minutes left to make it 26-17 Auburn. Watson came back moments later to drain his second three-pointer of the half to build the lead to 12 and Daniels closed the half on an old-fashioned three-point play to give the Tigers a comfortable 13-point lead at intermission.
The comfort level was very short lived as the Hawks exploded to start the second half. Following a Daniels basket to start the second half that gave Auburn a 34-19 lead, St. Joseph's would outscore the Tigers 18-3 over the next 6:19 of the game to tie the score at 37. Much of that damage was done by Nelson, who scored eight of his 27 points after intermission during the stretch. Now in a dogfight, the Tigers turned to Daniels to carry them home. Moments later he delivered with a big three to put Auburn ahead 42-39.
Battling back and forth the rest of the way, the Tigers broke a tie on a Bird three-pointer with 3:10 left in regulation to put Auburn up 52-49. Nelson came back to sink two free throws and cut the lead back to one. Each time the Tigers would pull ahead, the junior guard always had an answer. His play would eventually lead the game to overtime where Daniels and the Tigers would prevail.
Auburn now faces No. 2 seed Wake Forest, which survived a scared from 15th-seeded East Tennessee State. The game will be played Sunday with a start time of 3:30 CST in Tampa.