Following the game there should be no doubt in anyone's mind about the caliber of defense the senior guard is capable of game in and game out. Facing All-American Josh Howard with the likelihood of winning and losing on his shoulders, Bird all but shut down Howard and, in effect, shut down Wake Forest's offense on the way to a 68-62 victory.
"I just wanted to get up into him and keep him off the glass," Bird said of his plan against Howard. "He likes to get to the basket. I just wanted to front him in the post because he likes to post up as well. I just tried to do my best to stay with him and get him a little frustrated. It worked out."
Bird's defensive pressure on Howard took the entire Wake Forest offense out of their normal rhythm in Sunday's contest. One of the top offensive teams in the ACC this season on their way to the regular season title, the Demon Deacons were held to their lowest second half scoring output of the season by the Tigers.
Following a layup by Howard with 11:15 remaining in the game that gave Wake Forest a four-point lead, the Demon Deacons would score just 14 points the rest of the way with five of those points coming on free throws. Senior Marquis Daniels and the entire Auburn team said you could feel the frustration building on the court with every passing possession.
"Derrick did a good job of getting pressure on him and forcing him into doing things he normally doesn't do," Daniels said. "We had great help defense as well. All the credit goes to Derrick today. Josh Howard is a great player and he was fortunate enough to be able to contain him today and get good ball pressure on him."
Marquis Daniels talks about making it to the Sweet 16.
It didn't stop the Demon Deacons from doing what they do best early, and that is rebound the basketball. In the opening minutes they held a 9-4 advantage on the boards and led the game 21-12 following a Justin Gray three-pointer. Just when the Tigers looked to be on the mat they got up swinging. Pulling within four at intermission, Daniels said Auburn didn't change anything heading into the second half with the exception of determination.
"We knew Wake Forest was a great team coming in," Daniels said. "They came in and made some big shots and got to the free throw line a little more than we expected. They got a lot of offensive rebounds. The second half we focused on coming out with more intensity and controlling the boards a little better. I think we did a good job of that."
Ellis reiterated Daniels' remarks just moments later. After watching Gray score 26 points in 30 minutes, Auburn's head man said the job they did on him late was a difference in the game.
"Transition and boards are a key to Wake Forest and I thought we did a good job of that," Ellis said. "They are a great rebounding team and they are a great running team. In the half court game Gray was keeping them going. We did those things in the second half a lot better. I mean 24 points in the second half says a lot about your defense."
The battle of the second half emerged on Auburn's offensive end. With Daniels on the bench with four fouls, Howard moved to guard Brandon Robinson and the trash talking began. That proved to be a wake-up call for the sophomore. After struggling through the Tigers' opening round win over St. Joseph's, Robinson was one of the key figures both on the backboard and on offense for Auburn in the win over Wake Forest.
"It energized me a lot knowing that Howard is a player like me," Robinson said of playing and talking with Howard during the game. "The refs let us do a lot of talking, but didn't let it get carried away. It felt like I was playing against myself so it wasn't a big deal. It was fun."
Proving himself time and time again in his two seasons at Auburn, Bird put another brick on his house of outstanding defensive efforts with his performance Sunday. Ellis said that people around the country saw today what his coaching staff and the Auburn fans have known all along.
"We really rely a lot on Marquis on the offensive end," Ellis said. "We rely on Bird to take the defensive perimeter that gives the most problems. He did a great job. He's a great player and he had a great career," he said of Howard. "But Derrick Bird is an All-American defensive player.
"I don't care who's out there, this guy is going to guard you. He's got the body, he's going to hit you. He's a great defender and that's what he does. He brings his heart, soul and body to the table every time he goes out. On the perimeter he's going to take it. Whoever we play next is going to see it."
Waiting for Bird at 8:40 p.m. CST on Friday in Albany, N.Y., is going to be star freshman Carmelo Anthony from Syracuse. The Big East Newcomer of the Year, he was perhaps the best player in the country this season. While the challenge looks tough, it might not be wise to underestimate what Bird and his Auburn teammates can do.