Ciampi's Tigers Win 20th, Continue Strong Finish

The Tigers improved to 20-5, but it wasn't easy. Joe Ciampi gives the home crowd an assist for Auburn's comeback victory.

Auburn, Ala.--What was expected to be one of the easier games on the SEC schedule was a major struggle, but with the game on the line Auburn made key plays and pulled away for a 69-58 women's basketball victory over South Carolina on Sunday.

South Carolina, which had lived by the three at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, saw its upset bid die with a pair of threes by the Tigers in the game's final minutes.

Louise Emeagi put Auburn ahead for good with a long-range bomb from the wing with 5:28 left to give the Tigers a 57-54 lead. Point guard Nicole Louden followed with another trey at the 3:39 mark to make it 60-54.

Auburn, which had trailed 54-50, scored 14 unanswered points before the Gamecocks managed a basket with 1:49 left. By that time Auburn's 20th victory of the season had been secured thanks mainly to tenacious defense down the stretch that forced three air-balls and a two shot clock violations for the visitors.

Marita Payne is shown in Auburn's Sunday victory when she set a school blocked shots record. She made all three of her field goals and blocked four shots.

Earlier, there was some serious doubt that Auburn was going to win, especially after the visitors nailed seven first half three-pointers to take a 36-32 lead into intermission. However, Auburn switched out of its matchup zone to a man-to-man defense and held USC to four treys in the second half and just 33.3 percent shooting while making 55.6 of its shots in the final 20 minutes.

Also, the Tigers who had been out-rebounded 17-12 in the first half, ended the game with a 32-28 advantage on the boards after getting a lecture from their head coach about their first half performance in that area.

Center Mandisa Stevenson said that Joe Ciampi had some pointed remarks for the team at intermission. "Coach got on us and let us know they were out-rebounding us and pretty much out-hustling us the whole first half," Stevenson said. Stevenson noted that the Tigers came out "mentally stronger" in the second half and that made a big difference.

The win improved the Tigers to 8-3 in the SEC and continued the team's run to a high seeding for the NCAA Basketball Tournament. With the 20-5 record, Ciampi now has reached the 20-victory plateau 18 times in his 25 seasons at Auburn.

Even though his Tigers have won eight of their last nine games with the only loss an overtime setback at Tennessee which began the day unbeaten in league play, Ciampi said he was pleased with the victory and pleased that his team has a week off before its next game on Sunday Feb. 22nd when Vandy comes to town.

"Rebounding the second half and how we played defensively was the difference," Ciampi said. "It was a great way for our players to win their 20th game."

Junior guard Natasha Brackett led all scorers with 20 points and Le'Coe Willingham continued her strong play with 17 points and five rebounds. She made 8-12 field goals and impressed the head coach with clutch baskets in Auburn's late run. "I can't say enough about Le'Coe Willingham on the inside finding a way to body up and split the defense and catch the ball and shoot the ball in a crowd," Ciampi said. "She is as good as anybody in a crowd.

"We can also compliment Nicole (Louden) for getting her ball," Ciampi said. "Eleven assists--that is a strong statement."

Louden's assists were a career-high total on a day when center Marita Payne blocked four shots to break the school single season mark of 73 held by Linda Godby since the 1989-90 season. Payne now had 75.

Kelly Morrone, who hit six three-pointers, led the Gamecocks with 18 points. USC fell to 10-13 overall and just 1-9 in the SEC after beating Alabama 77-51 on Thursday. USC coach Susan Walvius said after the game that in her opinion Auburn is playing as well as anybody in the conference, which is the same thing Ole Miss coach Carol Ross said last week.

Ciampi noted that he likes the team's chemistry and how hard the Tigers have played this season. He said with no midweek game, the Tigers will take the next two days off for a much-needed rest and to heal a series of nagging injuries.

"I give them credit at halftime being able to make adjustments and going out and carrying out what needed to be done," he said. "It is a long season. Thank goodness we are off this week."

Auburn has four three more regular season games left with home tests vs. Vandy and Florida and a road trip to Alabama.

Stevenson, who scored six points and added six rebounds despite playiing through a painful high ankle sprain, said the vocal crowd of 2,586 gave the Tigers a boost for their strong stretch run. "It was good to have our fans here cheering for us," she said. "They kept us motivated."

Ciampi agreed and said, "I thought our fans energized us. They were educated fans from what I heard today. They spurred us on when we scored and when the officials made a call they spurred us on a little bit more. They either cheered for us or got us up off the ground and say, 'Hey, we will get them next time.' I was really impressed with our fans." Box Score

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