Averaging nearly 70 points per game on the season, the Hawks scored just 57 in regulation and 19 in the first half as the Tigers built a sizeable halftime lead and came through with a victory in overtime.
While Nelson was the main cog of the Hawk offense, the keys to victory coming into the game for the Tigers were stopping guards Pat Carroll and Delonte West. Averaging just over 28 points per game combined this season, the duo was a perfect complement to Nelson's slashing style from the perimeter. Auburn players said they knew that Nelson was going to get his points and Tiger defensive stopper Derrick Bird said he felt like coming in they had to take away both Carroll and West to win.
"Their guards are very good," Bird said. "He's probably the best person I've ever guarded," he said of Nelson. "He was so quick that I had trouble staying in front of him, but his shot was so deadly that I couldn't get off him. He was just a tough guy to defend. I think our team did a great job on West and Carroll as well. Our post players helped us out as well. Our defense was the key to the game."
Not only was Auburn's defense of Carroll and West good, it was downright nasty. Holding them to a combined 10 points on 3-of-18 shooting, including a 0-5 performance with no points by Carroll, the Tigers did the job on St. Joseph's on the perimeter and that was the difference between winning and losing in the end. Entering the game shooting 46.3 percent from three-point range, Carroll never found his mark against Auburn.
"That was the main key," Monroe said. "Pat Carroll didn't have any points. We really keyed on him because we know that he was one of the best three-point shooters in the country. We just had to limit his shots, touches and open looks. We also knew West was hurt and we had to make him drive as much as possible."
Kyle Davis played a big role in Auburn's win over St. Joseph's Friday in Tampa. Here he takes the ball to the basket against the Hawks.
Using a variety of players on Nelson, including Bird, Monroe, Marquis Daniels, and Nathan Watson, Auburn was able to keep players fresh in order to give maximum effort against West and Carroll. Watson was one of the players that did an especially good job not only on the defensive end, but offensively as well. Hitting two early three-pointers when the Tigers were looking to shake off their nerves, he was able to help Auburn settle in and build a big enough lead to hold off the feisty Hawks.
"It was tough because they had a lot of shooters," Watson said of playing defense Friday. "We couldn't help as much, but the post was there to help. They did a great job of helping us on penetrations and our defense down the stretch was the real key to the game. We could have just folded and gave it up, but we kept playing through the chaos and eventually won the game."
The post defense was a part that may have gone unnoticed by most but Kyle Davis, Marco Killingsworth and Brandon Robinson all played a big part in keeping the Hawks under wraps. Switching on screens, doubling the ball in the paint, and altering shots became huge for the Tigers late in the game with Nelson driving in the lane almost every possession. Playing maybe his best all-around game of the season in a critical time, Davis finished with seven points, nine rebounds and four blocked shot to help the Tigers win the rebounding battle 38-36 and the game.
Auburn now turns its attention to the No. 2 seed Wake Forest Demon Decons, winners over East Tennessee State on Friday in Tampa. The regular season ACC champion, they will be a tough challenge for the Tigers, but Robinson said the Tigers are going to enjoy this win for a little while before they worry about Sunday's game.
"It feels good knowing a lot of folks doubted us being here," Robinson said. "They thought we weren't even going to make it. It makes this win feel even better. We played defense and rebounded well. We maintained our composure tonight and played the way we are capable of playing. If we do that everything will turn out fine."