Daniels, Mr. Offense in Auburn's Sweet 16 game, scored 25 points with some brilliant inside work and lots of hustle and heart.
Bird, Mr. Defense on Friday night, helped put the clamps on Syracuse star Carmelo Anthony, and helped give the Tigers a chance to win with his work against a man four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier.
Bird defends Syracuse star Carmelo Anthony, who didn't score until the second half.
When it was over, the final scoreboard read 79-78 Syracuse and instead of cheers for the Orangemen, who had a home-like atmosphere and some helpful officiating calls at the Pepsi Arena in Syracuse country, there was a collective sigh of relief. More than 15,000 fans watching the action knew that if Auburn had just a little more time, the Tigers would likely be the team moving into the Elite Eight with a shot at the Final Four.
Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, the dean of NCAA Division I coaches, admitted if Auburn hadn't come out cold to start the game with its shooting, the Tigers would have defeated his third-seeded Orangemen, who improved to 27-5 while Auburn ends its season at 22-12.
"They were tremendous offensively in the second half," noted Boeheim, whose team survived a 51-point Auburn barrage in the final 20 minutes. "You have to give Auburn a tremendous amount of credit the way they came back. Daniels is really a terrific player."
Auburn coach Cliff Ellis changed offensive strategies in the second half, putting small forward Daniels at the high post and letting him get isolated one-on-one in the middle of the Syracuse 2-3 zone that gave Auburn fits in the first half. Daniels also contributed nine rebounds, four assists and two steals.
"Their zone caused us lots of problems in the first half," noted point guard Lewis Monroe, who scored 12 points and did not have a turnover. "It was different than anything we had played this year. Those guys were longer and quicker and we had trouble scoring against it."
Auburn had cut what had been a 17-point Syracuse halftime lead to three in the second half, but the Orangemen looked like they had withstood the rally with a 70-64 lead on a pair of Billy Edelin free throws with 1:26 left.
Nathan Watson, who helped lead the comeback with 16 points, hit 4-7 three-pointers, including several from way outside. "I was feeling good shooting the ball so I took the shots when they were there."
Watson kept the pressure on with a long three-pointer from past the top of the key with 1:19 on an assist from Bird to cut the gap to 71-67.
Syracuse's Anthony scored inside with 42 seconds left to stretch the lead to six again, but after an AU miss Daniels stole the ball and Monroe got it and fired another trey to make the score 73-70 with 30 seconds left.
Senior Kueth Duany saved the day for the Orangemen by making a pair of free throws with 35 seconds left to stretch the lead to 75-70. However, Auburn put the heat on again as Daniels scored on a runner in the lane to cut the gap to 75-72 with 21 seconds left.
Cliff Ellis gives instructions to sophomore Marco Killingsworth. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said his team did a good job of containing the Auburn forward.
Auburn couldn't get a steal on the press and was forced to foul Duany with 13 seconds left and again he made a pair. However, Auburn wasn't done. Watson drilled another three as he was falling down, this one with eight seconds left, to cut the gap to 77-75.
Syracuse then threw a long pass to Josh Pace for a layup to stretch the lead to four. Watson came through again with another three to cut the gap to one as the clock expired. The game appeared to be over, but the officials reviewed the replay and reset a fraction of a second, forcing the Orangemen to inbounds the ball which they were able to do to preserve the victory.
Auburn hit 54.5 percent from the field in the second half to jump-start the comeback and for the game the Tigers outscrapped the Orangemen on the boards to take a 40-36 rebounding edge. The difference in the game was the slow Auburn start.
"They hit foul shots down the stretch," said Ellis. "We made a heck of a run in the second half and played with all of our heart and soul. We didn't play a very good first half. We talked about it in the locker room at the half. We were right there. We were only 10 down. We gave it a run. Instead of having 0.3 left at the end we needed 30 more seconds."
Syracuse got off to a hot start with six-foot-six senior guard Kueth Duany hitting a pair of threes and scoring another basket to put the Orangemen on top 10-2.
Auburn quieted the crowd temporarily on a rebound basket by Brandon Robinson and a three-point jumper by Derrick Bird to cut the lead to 10-7 at the 15:58 mark.
Syracuse then stretched the lead to 12 with a 9-0 run to make the score 19-7 with 12:29 left in the opening half. Daniels ended the run with a running one-hander at the 11:12 mark.
Leading 19-13, the Orangemen put together another run by outscoring Auburn 14-3 to stretch the margin to 17 at the 4:08 mark before the Tigers stopped the bleeding.
Daniels hit a basket and made four of five three throws, Lewis Monroe made a three and a pair of free throws by Brandon Robinson cut the margin to single digits at 35-27. Syracuse managed to finish the half on top by 10 points, going to the locker room with a 37-27 margin.
Auburn's first half struggles were clearly with the shooting and turnovers. The Tigers managed to make just 9-30 field goals while the Orangemen hit 14-34 for 41.2 percent compared to AU's 30 percent. Auburn was 3-7 on three-pointers while Syracuse made 3-9. AU hit 6-7 first half free throws while SU made 6-6
The Tigers struggled with Syracuse's two-three zone defense and turned the ball over 13 times in the first 20 minutes compared to just six for Syracuse. AU's inside players had most of the turnovers. Killingsworth and Robinson were charged with three apiece, Davis had two and Rodney Tucker committed one.
Auburn's statistical advantage was on the boards where the Tigers held a 24-18 lead.
Syracuse scored the opening basket of the second half before Auburn made an 8-2 run with Watson's fastbreak layup following a block by Davis cutting the gap to 41-35, prompting Syracuse to call a timeout at the 16:13 mark. Prior to Watson's basket, Daniels scored two baskets and Watson added a pair of free throws.
Auburn cut the gap to four at the 15:47 mark when Davis slammed home a basket on a set in-bounds play from the baseline. A three-point basket on a fastbreak by Anthony stretched the SU margin back to nine at 14:36 with Syracuse on top 46-37.
The Tigers kept attacking and cut the margin to five at 12:19 on a long three-pointer by Watson.
At the 6:50 mark, the Tigers trimmed the lead to three points on a long range three-pointer from Bird as the Tigers reversed the ball across the zone for the good look for the senior from the wing.
Auburn kept the Orangemen from pulling away down the stretch to set the stage for the final charge that came up one point short.
"This one was hard to swallow," said Daniels, who added that it is a said day for him taking off his Auburn jersey for the last time. "I expect these guys will be right back here next year if not going farther," he added.
Sophomore point guard Monroe said, "We wanted to get to the Final Four so badly for Marquis and Derrick. We think so much of those guys. We went down fighting. We got to a point in the game where we could have just folded, but we weren't going to do that. We just fought back the whole game."