Trailing 27-25 at intermission after the Spiders shot 50 percent from the floor in the first half, Ciampi challenged his team at halftime to show more intensity on the defensive end. The result was a 20-5 Auburn run to open the second half that opened up a lead the Tigers wouldn't relinquish despite a late run from Richmond, led by Ebony Tanner's 24 points, to close the game within three with 23 seconds left. Auburn held on for a 59-53 victory that earns the Tigers a berth in the semi-finals against Creighton Monday night at 7 p.m. in Omaha, Neb.
"The key to this game starts with our defensive effort," Ciampi said. "At halftime we made a switch. We put Louise (Louise Emeagi) onto 33 (Kate Flavin). She had 11 points at halftime and she wound up with 11 points. Right then and there, that was a statement of how well we played. Offensively, they took Brackett (Natasha Brackett) out, which was a good key, and we still found ways to score inside and pound the ball inside. That's what it was going to come down to is using our energy and our size and quickness to pound the ball inside. That's what we did."
Louise Emeagi plays defense against Richmond on Wednesday.
Auburn's leading scorer, Brackett was held to just seven points on 2-13 shooting, but the play of sophomores Tia Miller and Nicole Louden as well as Emeagi wound up just enough for the Tigers to pull out the win. Punishing the Spiders in the paint, Miller finished with 17 points and nine rebounds to lead Auburn in scoring. Coming off the bench, Emeagi scored 12 points and had three steals in 32 minutes of action. While both were key, the lift Auburn needed offensively came from Louden.
A prolific scorer coming in high school, Louden has struggled to find her shot since arriving on the Plains two years ago. It looked like that would continue Wednesday as Louden started the game 0-4 in the first half with just one assist in 11 minutes, but the second half gave a glimpse of what Ciampi expects out of the sophomore. Drilling shots from all over the Beard-Eaves Coliseum floor, Louden was 5-7 in the second half and also dished out three assists. Finishing with 14 second half points, she spurred the Auburn run that broke the game open on the way to the win.
"Hats off to Richmond," Louden said. "They came out extremely intense, obviously ready to win this game. I think they had us back on our heels a little bit. During halftime Coach told us that we had come too far to let this slip through our hands. He basically motivated us because we all fed off his energy and came back out pretty intense.
"I was trying to allow the game to come to me. I think I'm a pretty good shooter, but I had been struggling terribly and I've been working on that. I felt pretty comfortable, I was more relaxed in the second half as opposed to the first half. I just tried to let things come to me and thankfully it went my way."
Nicole Louden dribbles looking for an open teammate.
Trailing by two at intermission, Auburn came out determined to carry this WNIT berth through to the end. Following a Tanner basket that put Richmond up by four, Louden hit her first basket of the game to make it 29-28 Spiders with 18:37 left. The teams would trade baskets back and forth for the next two minutes and Auburn led 32-31 following a basket by Richmond's Amber Goppert with 16:48 left. For the next five minutes it would be all Tigers as they scored 12 of the next 13 points in the game to take a 13-point lead with 11:44 remaining. Tanner would hit a layup with 11:21 left and that basket brought on a cold spell from both teams.
Almost three minutes elapsed before Louden hit her second three of the second half to put Auburn up by 14, its largest lead of the game. Consecutive baskets by Tanner and Elise Ryder, the latter a three pointer, cut Auburn's lead back to nine with just over seven minutes remaining. The lead would remain a comfortable margin until Tanner made a layup with 1:07 left in the game to cut Auburn's lead to six at 54-48. Until that time the Tigers had done just enough to keep the Spiders at bay. In the end it would be free throw shooting that saved the day for Auburn.
That's because Richmond cut the lead to just four with 43 seconds left after Miller missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity. Holding the slim lead, Auburn put the ball in the hands of Louden and the leading free throw shooter on the team delivered, draining two for a six-point lead. That would be big when Ryder hit another three to make it 56-53 with 23 seconds left in the game.
Two free throws by Brackett put the lead back up to five and a Richmond miss essentially brought the game to a close. Forward Le'Coe Willingham hit one free throw, part of just three points on the night, to make the final 59-53.
The Tigers now travel to continue their run at a championship to close out the season. While it's not the NCAA Tournament, with just one senior receiving playing time, the experience has been huge for a team that has a chance to contend for an SEC title next season.
"Like Coach says, not too many teams can say they ended their season on a win and that's what we're trying to do now," Louden said. "Not looking past Creighton, but we want to win this tournament to show the NCAA Committee that we should have been in the NCAAs. I think we have a lot to prove for ourselves. We're working hard and hopefully things will work out for the best."