Tiger basketball fans gave their team three standing ovations for the hustle-filled effort that improved their team's record to 11-10 overall and 2-6 in the SEC. Mississippi State fell to 17-6 overall and 5-4 in the conference.
"They kind of sagged off me like I wasn't going to score," said Tolbert, who finished with a career-high 29 points. "I took that in mind and tried to do what I could to score so it would open up my teammates. I knew they were going to trying to play off me and play Toney (Douglas) and Ian (Young)."
Tolbert hit 10-14 field goals, 4-7 threes and added six rebounds and three assists in 39 minutes of court time. "I put in hard work during the week and it paid off," the freshman said.
With point guard Ian Young playing with a sore ankle, Toney Douglas handled the point guard duties much of the game. He and whoever was on the court with him did a strong job of moving the ball vs. the Mississippi State zone in the first half when the Tigers built a big lead.
"We moved the ball more," notes Tolbert, who had only scored 26 points in Auburn's first seven SEC games. "The first time we didn't move the ball as efficiently as we did tonight. Plus, we made the open shots. That is another big thing."
In the first game at Starkville, the Tigers took a 90-53 beating. However, Coach Jeff Lebo's team was the better squad on Saturday and he liked the way his team worked on offense.
"When we were making shots we were moving the ball," Lebo said." We got open looks and they were going in the basket.
"They started playing the two bigs together," Lebo said. "For (seven-footer) Marcus Campbell it is a hard game for him to play because he is not playing against traditional big guys. When they went small, which we knew they would because they did it the first time we played them, we still got good looks. We made shots. Frank, I don't know what got into him. I would like to see it more.
Quinnel Brown shoots over MSU star Lawrence Roberts. Both players scored 16 points on Saturday. Roberts, with seven rebounds, had one more than than Brown, who added four assists to two for the All-American.
Campbell was pulled out of the game after going 0-4 from the field in the first five minutes and he never returned.
"We got good spacing in this game," Lebo noted. "We passed the ball very well. We got open shots and we shot 60 percent from the field in the game, we were 14-24 from the line (three-pointers), we made our foul shots (16-21) and we held our own on the boards (28-30) for the most part...I thought we battled our tails off--every position, every guy."
Lebo's only complaint is the Tigers had some problems when the Bulldogs got very physical late in the game with a full-court press defense. "We didn't finish the game like we would like, handling the press, but we had a nice comfortable lead, at least, at that point," the coach said.
However, Auburn's big lead was more than enough cushion despite the Bulldogs scoring 49 second half points after getting only 27 in the first half.
"I thought we confused them a little bit," Lebo said of his team's first half strategy of switching defenses. "I think they figured it out a little more in the second. We did some different things to try to disguise what we were in. We tried to get people standing around a little bit."
Lebo added, "We were hoping for one of these nights. It could not come at a better time for these kids."
Auburn got 21 points from Douglas, who hit 7-12 field goals and was 3-3 on treys. He added five assists and two steals to go with just three turnovers in 40 minutes on the court.
Quinnel Brown chipped in with 16 points, six rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks.
The Tigers got 13 points and six rebounds from Nathan Watson, who earned praise from Lebo for his defense on MSU star Lawrence Roberts, who was held to 16 points and and seven rebounds. Shane Power led the Bulldogs with 18 points.
"We shot pretty good in practice yesterday and I guess we just had carryover to today," Watson noted.
Young, who was listed as questionable for the game with an ankle injury suffered on Wednesday, played 27 minutes and scored five points and added six assists for the Tigers.
MSU coach Rick Stansbury said he realized that despite having just one SEC win that Auburn was a dangerous opponent. He said other teams have struggled with Lebo's undersized but quick Tigers.
"I don't think it is just us," Stansbury said. "They beat Tennessee, had a chance to beat Florida and it was a one-point game against Alabama late. I said all along they have a disadvantage defensively. They zone to try to hide it the best they can.
"Offensively, they have an advantage every night against whoever they play," Stansbury said. "When they shoot the ball like they shot it tonight they are hard to guard. Whether we were guarding them or not, they still made shots."
Toney Douglas said he felt comfortable playing point guard on Saturday. He contributed 21 points, five assists, two steals and turned the ball over just three times.
State jumped to an early lead as expected, but a 12-0 run by the Tigers put Auburn up 18-9 at the 11:55 mark and caused Stansbury to call a timeout to regroup.
Stansbury had to repeat the timeout strategy two more times in the first half as freshman Tolbert and his teammates continued to extend the lead.
Back to back three-pointers by Tolbert built the lead to 26-13 at the 7:45 mark.
The lead hit 20 points at the 5:55 mark on a three-pointer from the wing by Watson leading to Stansbury's third timeout. However, it would get worse for the Bulldogs before it got better.
Another Watson three, this one with 3:45 remaining, gave the Tigers their biggest lead, 24 points at 40-16.
By halftime the Bulldogs had cut the lead to 46-27. Auburn built the lead with its first half 69.2 field goal shooting, that included 8-12 from three-point range. The Bulldogs went into the dressing room at halftime shooting 37.5 percent.
Neither team could make a run in the first 10 minutes of the second half, although the Bulldogs were operating with more efficiency on the offensive end of the court.
At the 9:03 mark the visitors trailed 67-52 following a pair of free throws by Roberts. Less than a minute later, a pair of Toney Douglas free throws extended the Auburn margin back to 71-52.
Despite four fouls for Watson and Daniel Hayles, the Tigers held their lead and earned a standing ovation from the home crowd of 4,551 for their hustle scrambling for loose balls.
The Tigers extended margin past 20 at the 7:09 mark as Brown hit both ends of a 1-1 to make the score 73-52.
State cut the gap to 11 at 85-74 on a Gary Ervin layup with 2:12 left, but Auburn kept its poise and extended the final margin to 14 points.
"Basketball is a funny game," said Lebo, noting that just because the Tigers were crushed at Mississippi State last month didn't mean they couldn't win the rematch.
"We are so odd to have to defend when we are making them. We were making them from every spot."
State shot 55.9 percent in the second half to finish at 48.3 percent for the game to 60.0 for Auburn. The Bulldogs were 13-25 at the foul line and missed shots in the first half when the Tigers made their run to build the big lead.
Auburn had 16 turnovers, one less than MSU. MSU outscored Auburn in the paint 36-32.
"I thought we were unselfish," Lebo said. "We had 16 assists in the first half and 24 for the game. Sixteen assists in the first half is a load." For the game, MSU had 15 assists.
Mississippi State forward Ontario Harper said the Bulldogs did not overlook the Tigers after pounding Auburn in game one. "That game had nothing to do with what happened today," he said. "We knew that they would have their crowd behind them today and they would shoot the ball much better at home. They just made more plays than we did."
Tolbert and his Tigers now face a stretch of four road games in the their next five outings. However, for the rest of Saturday he and his teammates can enjoy their second league victory that ended with a Tolbert slam dunk on a breakaway.
"It was a nice exclamation point to end the game," the said.
Auburn returns to action with a 7 p.m. game on Wednesday at LSU.