Saddled with foul trouble for much of the game, Daniels gave the reigns to the team to sophomore point guard Lewis Monroe and he took the Tigers home. Scoring 12 points, including four late free throws to seal the victory, Monroe led Auburn to a berth in the Sweet 16 with a 68-62 victory over second seed Wake Forest on Sunday afternoon. Monroe was one of four Tiger players scoring in double figures as they erased a nine-point first half lead and a four-point halftime deficit on the way to the victory.
"He really had a big game," Coach Cliff Ellis said of Monroe following the win. "He played with his heart and hit some big shots. He hit some clutch free throws and played some great defense. He was super. He's really playing with more confidence now than I've seen him play with."
While he only played 26 minutes in the game, Daniels didn't exactly have an off day. Finishing with 18 points, four rebounds and three steals, the senior could only watch for much of the second half as his teammates picked up his slack to carry on for the win. Marco Killingsworth and Brandon Robinson each finished with 11 points in the contest and Killingsworth added eight big rebounds.
Rebounding and defense were the keys mentioned coming into Sunday's game with the ACC Champions and the Tigers carried out their assignments with tenacious accuracy. Finishing with 33 rebounds compared to 35 for Wake Forest, they stayed relatively close in the department to keep the Demon Deacons' normal advantage from becoming a weapon.
Lewis Monroe had his best clutch performance of the season in Auburn's win over Wake Forest.
Defensively, the Tigers dominated the Demon Deacons from the second half whistle to the final horn. Trailing 38-34, Auburn held Wake Forest to a season low 24 points in the second half on a season low 26.9 percent from the field. Much of those numbers came because of the job Derrick Bird did guarding All-American and ACC Player of the Year Josh Howard.
After scoring eight first half points, Howard made just 2-of-6 shots in the second half and finished with 14 points. Bird said following the game that he looked forward to the challenge and he was just ready to help the team win the game in any way possible. "I just wanted to come in and focus on helping out to contain their best player," Bird said. "It's a lot of hard work. I know it helped the team a lot and that's all I'm about. I'm a team player and I just wanted us to win. If that is what was going to help us win then I'm going to do it."
For a while it didn't appear Bird's defense was going to be enough to push the Tigers over the top and earn a victory. Behind the play of inside men Vytas Danelius and Eric Williams, the Demon Deacons were able to hold the lead in the second half and actually extend it to five at 46-41 when Williams made two free throws with 11:48 remaining. Wake Forest would score just 16 points the rest of the way to allow the Tigers to walk away with the upset victory.
Robinson got Auburn's comeback underway when he cut through the lane and scored after catching a pass from Nathan Watson. Fouled in the process, Robinson made the free throw to cut the lead to just two points and bring the crowd into the game. In an arena filled with Florida fans that were waiting to see their Gators play Michigan State in the following game, the crowd got behind the Tigers and it energized them down the stretch. Unfortunately for AU, the good feelings would be short-lived when Daniels picked up his fourth foul of the game with 9:37 left in the game and Auburn trailing 48-46. While most in the arena thought that was the end for the Tigers, the players had other thoughts.
"We knew that Marquis was one of our big time scorers," Watson said. "When he got in foul trouble and had to leave the team, somebody had to step it up. I think a lot of guys on our team stepped it up and helped pull out the win. Everybody on this team has a lot of heart. We came here strictly about business. You just have to know it before you do it and everyone felt real positive today."
Watson would strike first in Auburn's run with a rebound and put-back of a Killingsworth miss from three-point range. Although it came from an unlikely source in a guard, it would signal a trend for the game as the Tigers dominated the points in the paint by a 36-14 margin. Following a Justin Gray free throw, one of his game-high 26 points, Monroe came back with one of the biggest shots of his career. Using a screen at the top of the key, the sophomore guard spotted up just outside the three-point line and drained his second bomb of the game. Now leading 51-49, the Tigers would never trail again despite constant pressure from Wake Forest.
Marco Killingsworth and Brandon Robinson take it all in during Auburn's post game press conference.
"As soon as Marquis left the game I went to the other guys and told them, ‘We have to step it up,'" Monroe said. "We had to all step it up because our main scorer was gone. We had to put points on the board and play defense on the other end."
Two Howard free throws tied the game once again at 51-51, but Killingsworth responded with a strong drive to the basket that resulted in a Wake Forest foul. Draining both free throws, the Montgomery native put Auburn ahead once again. Howard's fourth foul just moments later gave Monroe a chance to stretch the lead, and he did just that with two free throws. Sensing the upset with 5:07 remaining, the crowd jumped behind the Tigers fully for the home stretch.
Robinson added to the Auburn lead with 4:32 left when he scored underneath the basket to make the score 57-51. Showing their championship character, the Demon Deacons answered back with a Gray three-pointer with 4:00 remaining. Leading by just three at the next timeout with 3:43 left, Ellis inserted Daniels back into the lineup for the closing moments of the game. The move paid immediate dividends as he stepped in the Wake Forest passing lane to force a jump ball with 3:13 left. Although he would turn the ball over moments later, Daniels made up for it when he rebounded a Monroe miss and put it back in the basket for a five-point lead with 1:48 left in the game.
Leading by five, Auburn couldn't shake the Deacons as Gray made two free throws to cut the lead back to three just five seconds later. Daniels would then put his signature on the game with a patented up and under move for two points. Guarded by Jamaal Levy, Daniels beat him to the baseline and soared towards the basket only to be met by Howard. Showing him the ball, Daniels sailed under the basket and re-emerged to lay the ball off the window for two. The play gave the Tigers a five-point lead once again and took the sails out of the Wake Forest charge. Daniels and Monroe would combine to make 5-6 free throws down the stretch as Auburn watched the final seconds tick down for a 68-62 victory.
"It was a great feeling knowing that we are in the Sweet 16," Monroe said of what he was feeling coming off the court. "It's only my sophomore year and we're looking at doing bigger and better things. We just want to keep this going."
To do that the Tigers will have to travel to enemy territory to face the 26-5 Syracuse Orangemen. Defeating Oklahoma State 68-56 Sunday, the Orangemen wrapped up a chance to play in Albany, New York, where they are sure to have a large number of fans. For now the Tigers aren't concerned about their next opponent. They did what no one thought was possible and they are going to enjoy it.
The first half of basketball was one of the more physical the Tigers have played this season. Taking on the challenge of guarding Howard, Bird played relentless defense on the 6-6 guard in the first half. Scoring eight points in the half, four were on free throws as Howard became more and more frustrated as the half came to a close. It culminated for him with his second foul on a push off of Bird with 1:44 remaining. Getting in the face of the official, he almost got the dreaded technical foul, which would have put the Demon Deacons in a serious hole.
As it was the play of the freshman guard Gray was the difference in the first half. Coming off the bench just minutes into the game, he made 5-8 shots from the field to score 15 first half points. Auburn was led by Bird, who scored nine points on 3-6 shooting. His biggest shot came deep into the second half with the Tigers trailing by a score of 34-25. With the shot clock running down, he took a pass from Monroe and launched a NBA length three-pointer that banked in just as the clock expired. Fired up from that with Daniels on the bench with two fouls, Auburn made a run to keep things interesting to close the half.
Trailing 34-29, Bird hit a fade away jump shot to cut the lead to just three. Following two Trent Strickland free throws and a Gray basket, Monroe hit the shot of the half for the Tigers. With just over 13 seconds left, he took the inbound pass and moved down court to within 25 feet of the basket. Staring at the shot clock, he launched a three-pointer that swished through the nets with just one second left. Trailing 38-34, Auburn remained squarely in the game and they would play their best 20 minutes of basketball this season to pull out the victory.