Out since breaking a bone in his foot in preseason practice, the junior returned to the floor and played just three minutes while limping noticeably, but those three minutes were enough to give the Tigers something to look forward to in the weeks to come as they head into SEC play.
"He's been practicing," Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis said of Monroe. "I said if the game is out of hand then we would try it. He's not ready, I think you could see that, but the more that we can get him in...our goal is this. We've got a six-game stretch and then we've got an open date and I think our goal needs to be able to get him back in during this time and during that stretch of 10 games that we have left have our team back in full gear and do the conference tournament. It's good to have him back and hopefully each day he'll get better."
Monroe, a key figure in Auburn's Sweet 16 run last season, said, "It felt good to get back out there, contribute a little bit, and do what I can do. The main thing is just to get ready for conference play. There isn't a timetable. I'm just going to go with the flow and hopefully I'll be ready soon."
In the final tuneup game before conference play begins in Nashville, four Auburn players scored in double-figures as the Tigers added to an eight-point lead at intermission with a strong second half performance in the paint on the way to the victory.
Junior forward Brandon Robinson led the way for the Tigers with 16 points and 12 rebounds while Marco Killingsworth and Nathan Watson added 15 each.
Senior Kyle Davis rounded out the quartet with 12 points and 10 rebounds as Auburn punished the smaller New Orleans squad on the boards in the second half to secure the victory after being outrebounded in the first half of play. That's something that Robinson said didn't sit well with the team at the break.
"The coaches came in and told me we lost the rebounding edge by three," Robinson said of the halftime speech. "That kind of made me mad because being as big as we are we shouldn't lose to teams like that. Not saying that they're not good, but us having the size we have we should out-rebound our opponents. I just told all our inside guys that we have to pick it up, get physical and got to the boards. That's what they did."
Lewis Monroe sees his first action of the season in the closing minutes.
Leading 31-23 at intermission after making 13-27 shots from the floor, but grabbing just 15 rebounds, the Tigers began the second half on a mission and quickly established themselves as the dominant team. After New Orleans scored the first four points of the second stanza it was time for the Tigers to take over.
Killingsworth was the first to step up as he scored back-to-back baskets in the paint to build the lead quickly back to seven points. Watson then drained one of his three long range bombs on the night to push the lead to double figures at 10.
New Orleans never got closer than that the rest of the way as an unselfish Tiger squad kept the Privateers at bay with a flurry of passes from all over the court. The most spectacular of the night came from Robinson. Normally not the most comfortable of players on the break with the ball in his hands, the Huntsville native made two spectacular passes that gave the crowd something to cheer about in the second half. The first came off a steal as Robinson broke ahead of the pack with Killingsworth off the wing to his right. Lofting the ball high in the air, Robinson fed Killingsworth perfectly for a thunderous alley-oop to bring the house down and give Auburn a 45-33 lead with just over 14 minutes left in the game.
The lead would stretch out to as many as 15 when Robinson made the second highlight reel play of the night. Playing stingy defense like they had done all night, the Tigers forced one of 12 turnovers when Watson picked the pocket of a New Orleans player. Racing forward he passed underneath the basket to a streaking Robinson. Caught too far under the goal all he could do was tip the ball back into the waiting hands of Watson for a lay-up and a 17-point Auburn lead.
Cruising the rest of the way Auburn would build the lead to as much as 20 points on a layup by Watson in the lane with just over five minutes remaining in the game.
That was enough for Ellis, who summoned Monroe off the bench to a cheer from the crowd. Able to get the team in the offense despite his less-than perfect health, Monroe looked a little uncomfortable at times on the court. While he wasn't his normally smooth self, the junior did take two shots from the field and both a three-pointer from the top of the key and a runner in the lane rimmed out. Despite his scoreless night and rusty return Ellis said that he's happy to have Monroe back, but this team is a long way from where it needs to be heading into the next three months of play.
"I still think our team has some ways to go," Ellis said. "We have to become more consistent. I thought the other night our inside play was strongly dominant and tonight I thought it was dominant on New Orleans' part. We need more consistency. We go into our conference at 9-2 and feel pretty good about that, but we've still got some work to do. We need to be more consistent in what we do."
In the first half the Tigers couldn't seem to find a rhythm early and remained that way until sophomore Troy Gaines was inserted into the lineup at point guard. Playing the position sparingly since his arrival last season, Gaines has become more assertive lately in practices and in games and Ellis said that was something he thought his team needed against New Orleans. Although he scored just three points with two assists, Gaines brought something to the table for the Tigers in terms of leadership.
Trailing 6-3 over six minutes into the contest, the Tigers finally got some life when Robinson caught an offensive rebound and sent it home with a resounding dunk. Spurred on by the excitement Auburn scored the next seven points, capped off by a Killingsworth layup, to give the Tigers an eight-point advantage.
Twice in the half Auburn would build leads of 10 points only to have the scrappy Privateers pull back into range. After cutting the lead down to six late in the half New Orleans allowed Killingsworth to sneak behind the defense for a late layup and an eight-point Tiger lead at intermission. Auburn would stretch that out to win going away.
The Tigers return to action Wednesday night when they travel to Nashville to face the undefeated and 22nd-ranked Vanderbilt Commodores in the SEC opener for both schools.