Vandy set a school record with its 12th straight win to start the season. Auburn falls to 9-3 after losing a game featuring hot and cold streaks by both teams.
The Tigers rallied from a 34-20 halftime deficit after scoring the game's first five points. Auburn was down by as many as 17 points in the first period.
"It was a dogfight," said Auburn junior forward Brandon Robinson, who went out of the game with an ankle sprain. "There was a lot of scrapping out there. Vandy came to play. They were scrapping. We were scrapping."
Auburn made its run early in the second half. The Tigers cut the margin to single digits with an inside basket by Marco Killingsworth with 14:33 left to play.
"There was no change in the game plan," Killingsworth said. "It wasn't something specifically called for by Coach Ellis. He always stresses to go inside. He is a big man's coach. I was telling them to look for me down low."
Killingsworth's inside scoring ability helped open up the perimeter. A three-point shot by guard Ian Young at the 9:08 mark whittled the Vandy lead to six at 46-40.
Robinson then led the sprint into the lead. His steal and stuff cut the margin to 48-46 and he followed that with another steal and a three-point jumper from the wing to put the Tigers up 49-48 with 6:22 to play.
The Tigers built their lead to 53-48 on a Robinson jump shot from the wing on a pass from Killingsworth with 5:31 left. However, after that the visitors went ice cold with their shooting and Vandy slowly recaptured the lead as Auburn didn't score again.
Robinson was lost at the 3:54 mark with Auburn up 53-50. The Commodores cut the gap to 53-52 as Dan Freije hit one of two free throws with 1:27 left on a play in which Kyle Davis fouled out. The Vandy star missed his second free throw, but the Commodores got the long rebound and cashed in with a three-point bucket by senior Russell Lakey with 1:07 left to play.
Vandy had missed 13 straight three-point shots in the second half before Lakey's clutch basket that brought down a thunderous roar from the relieved crowd of 13,089 at Memorial Gym who were witnesses to a possible upset of the 21st-ranked Commodores.
Auburn then set up the offense and went inside to Killingsworth, who lost the ball in heavy traffic as he tried for an old-fashioned three-point play. He didn't get a basket or a foul call and Vandy got the ball and two Lakey free throws to make the lead 58-53 with 19.5 seconds.
Auburn's last gasp was a Young three-pointer that was too long and Freije added another free throw to make the final margin six points.
"We played our hearts out," said Auburn senior center Davis, who led all rebounders with 10. "We kept playing hard, but the SEC is tough. We got a bunch of guys who can step up. I remember my first time as a freshman it was very difficult up here (in Nashville). Everybody gained confidence tonight. We have to play hard every night."
Watson led the Tigers in scoring with 13 points and Killingsworth added 12. Robinson scored nine and Young added seven.
Freije, a 6-10 senior forward, led all scorers with 15 points, but Auburn held him under his scoring average as he made just 4-14 field goals. Corey Smith added 10 for Vandy
"I can not fault our kids," said Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis. "They played so hard."
Ellis said he thought the turning point of the game was when Robinson went down with the injury. "I am real pleased with the way we took the fight to the other team," he said. "We grew up a little bit in the backcourt. We still have some things we have to manage. I thought our front line did a great job."
Auburn had a chance to win despite 38.9 percent shooting by taking a 40-33 edge on the boards and coming away with nine steals. Vandy was hot in the first half, making 58.3 percent of its shots. That changed drastically in the second half as the Commodores hit 28.6 percent to slip to 42.3 percent for the game.
The Tigers hurt their cause at the foul line by making just 6-14. Vandy was slightly better, making 8-13.
The Tigers had 14 turnovers and Vandy 11. Auburn was 5-18 on threes while Vandy made 7-25.
"I didn't think it (not having experienced a close game) would hurt us, and it didn't," Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings said. "They (Auburn) got a 53-48 lead, and then our guys dug in. They guarded and played with the same energy that I see in practice.
"Our guys deserve a lot of credit. I think it's harder to come back at home. At home, you're used to high expectations. On the road, you expect to face adversity a little more. I'm proud of our guys for sticking with it. I was very impressed with their composure."
Auburn returns to action for its SEC home opener on Saturday at 3 p.m. vs. Ole Miss. Ellis noted the Tigers better be ready for another physical test vs. the Rebels. "There is no day off in this league," he said.
Tiger Ticket Extra: There were just three fouls called in the first 13 minutes. Auburn players said the officiating crew told them that they were going to "let them play" on Wednesday night. For the game, AU was whistled for 19 fouls and Vandy 17...Kyle Davis suffered a hip pointer, but came back and played with the injury. "It is all part of the SEC," Davis said. "It is going to be physical out there."...Brandon Robinson said shot selection hurt the Tigers in the first half as they made just 29.2 percent of their shots in the first 20 minutes. "We took bad shots and the shots weren't falling," he said...Robinson said he is eager to get starting point guard Lewis Monroe well and ready to play. Monroe watched from the bench. Robinson added that the replacement point guards, Chris Lollar and Troy Gaines, "are playing their hearts out." Gaines struggled with his shooting, making just two of 11 field goals in 20 minutes.