Ugly Win Over UGA Pretty Nice For Tigers

The Auburn men's basketball team got its first SEC win of the season, a 66-65 victory over Georgia. The Tigers lead the series 85-84.

Auburn, Ala.--In what may have been the ugliest, most physical basketball game played in Beard-Eaves in a long time, the Auburn Tigers (9-8 overall, 1-5 SEC) escaped with a win over the Georgia Bulldogs (12-8 overall, 2-5 SEC) 66-65 to get their first SEC victory of the season.

The Tigers won the game despite turning the ball over 24 times, missing 17 free throws and committing 20 fouls.

"It was interesting," said Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo. "I was real proud of our team. We battled through a lot of stuff. We battled through a lot of adversity. I'm proud of the guys for getting the first one. It feels good and I know they feel good.

"We've been struggling playing, but the kids have battled hard in practice," he added. "Despite missing free throws at the end we missed a lot more during the game. We had 24 turnovers, but we still found a way to win, which is nice."

In a back-and-forth game which was close from start to finish, Auburn had a seven-point lead with 1:30 remaining, but blew several chances to put the game away. Georgia also missed out on several opportunities in the game's closing minutes.

"Just don't give up," said Auburn's Frank Tolbert. "We came out and we wanted to win this game today. We had it in our hands and we didn't want to let it go. We just kept playing hard until the end."

Auburn point guard Quantez Robertson missed six free throws in a 24-second span in the game's closing minutes, but with a two point Tiger lead, senior Ronny LeMelle was able to finish off the Bulldogs by sinking a pair with 23 seconds left.

Ronny LeMelle failed to make a field goal, but hit eight of his 10 free throws.

Part of the reason for the 24 Auburn turnovers was the man-to-man pressure applied by Georgia. Led by Sundiata Gaines the Bulldogs forced Robertson into eight turnovers and disrupted the Tigers' offense all game.

"They were really pressuring us," Lebo said. "They were coming out, they went small and they can guard the ball. Gaines can really guard the ball and he's strong, and Tez had a lot of trouble with that. When they pressure you like that you have to beat them off the dribble. We did that and got to the foul line."

With an attacking style of defense and several Georgia players in foul trouble, Lebo made it a point of emphasis for his players to get to the basket.

"We knew they were in foul trouble so we were going to attack the basket and get to the line more to get more points," Tolbert said.

Unfortunately for Lebo his players only made 22-39 shots from the free throw line.

Josh Dollard led Auburn in scoring with 16 while adding six rebounds. Tolbert had 13 points, five rebounds and four important blocks. He had four turnovers in 30 minutes, which isn't great but it's an improvement for the sophomore guard.

LeMelle, who was 0-8 from the field and 0-4 on threes, scored all eight of his points from the foul line on 10 attempts. He also had six points and three assists. Barber scored nine and pulled down five boards before fouling out in just 12 minutes of action.

Playing with a sore back, freshman Rasheem Barrett turned in a gutsy effort with eight points and six rebounds.

Gaines led Georgia in scoring, rebounding and assists with 18, seven and five. Levi Stukes, who hit 4-9 threes, scored 16 points.

The Tigers out-rebounded the Bulldogs 45 to 32 with 15 of the boards coming on the offensive end. Auburn had 19 second-chance points to just three for Georgia.

For several series throughout the game, both teams played with a lineup of five guards. Georgia coach Dennis Felton had to deal with 30 team fouls and three players fouling out while Lebo had to substitute around the one-game suspension of freshman forward Joey Cameron and Barber's foul trouble.

"I don't think I've ever seen a Southeastern Conference game with 10 guys out there all about 6-4 or under for a majority of the game," Lebo said. "It was interesting."

Auburn raced out to an early lead behind seven quick points by Dollard and claimed an early 12-2 advantage. Georgia didn't make a field goal until Stukes knocked down a three from the top of the key more than six minutes in. Just moments later freshman Mike Mercer scored three the hard way off a steal to cut into the Auburn lead.

After two more threes by Stukes and one by Gaines, the Bulldogs went up 23-22 with five minutes remaining in the first half for their first lead. Tied at 28 apiece, the Bulldogs held for the last shot of the half and Gaines once again gave his team a two-point advantage at 30-28 heading into halftime.

Both teams had a tough time scoring to begin the second half as it took Auburn nearly three minutes to score and Georgia nearly four minutes. Gaines got the scoring going for the Bulldogs with a layup and a three from the top of the key. The Tigers struggled to hit shots from the field, but got seven points from the foul line after making just five of their first 13 attempts.

Auburn was up 39-37 and LeMelle was shooting his second free throw when Korvotney Barber showed the athleticism that made him a McDonald's All-American as a prep player. LeMelle missed and Barber made an athletic tip-in for two. The next time down the court Barber got another offensive rebound, missed several shots but kept with it and got another tip-in.

LeMelle again went to the foul line, hit the first, and in almost the same fashion as before Barber scored two more on a free-throw tip-in and Auburn was then up 48-44.

"When we were shooting free throws I was quicker than them getting off the line," Barber said. "I got in quick every time and got some tips every time it came off."

For the next few minutes the game actually looked like more of a basketball game than a rugby match as both teams scored on nearly every possession. Tolbert, who played more under control on Saturday than he has most of the season, had a pair of three-point plays--one on a long three-pointer and the other on a drive, lay-in, foul and free throw.

Auburn led 58-50 at that point with less than seven minutes remaining, but the game was far from over. Stukes nailed a long jumper, Gaines hit a pair of free throws and Channing Toney drained a three-pointer to cut the deficit to three at 60-57 with three and a half minutes to play.

The Tigers scored the next four points at the foul line on makes by Rasheem Barrett and Daniel Hayles to lead 64-57, but that's when things turned even uglier. With five guards on the court for both teams the Bulldogs were able to fight back with five quick points aided by the six consecutive misses by Robertson.

"He's a freshman," Lebo said. "He's one of our better free throw shooters. He'll learn from it. I think he'll be able to step up there, be confident and make them the next time. We've all been there as a player."

Auburn was ahead 64-62, but with Robertson missing from the line the Tigers were never able to put the game out of reach. Fortunately for them, Georgia, who had plenty of chances to tie the game with under a minute remaining, could never get the ball in the basket.

With 25 seconds remaining, Gaines drove the lane only to have his shot swatted away by Tolbert. LeMelle grabbed the loose ball and was fouled, and the senior calmly made both free throws to put Auburn ahead by two possessions.

"Ronny works a lot on his free throws in practice, so it kind of took the monkey off Tez's back when Ronny stepped up," Dollard said. "Ronny is a good free throw shooter--not saying that Tez is a bad free throw shooter because he leads the team--but it took some pressure off the team knowing that Ronny would step up and make the free throws."

Gaines hit a meaningless three at the buzzer as Auburn escaped 66-65.

Auburn's next game is at LSU on Wednesday, Feb. 1 at 7 p.m.

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