Tigers Hold On For Third SEC Victory

Auburn, Ala.--Auburn's infamous late game scoring drought raised its ugly ahead again on Wednesday night, but this time the Tigers had enough left in the canteen to survive the dry spell and hold off a Mississippi State comeback.

With the victory, the Tigers tied the Bulldogs in the battle to stay out of the SEC West basement.

After racing out to a 20-point halftime lead, the Tigers had to scratch and claw to hold on for a 75-71 basketball victory at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.

"We don't ever do it easy now," said Auburn coach Jeff Lebo, whose team improved to 3-10 in the conference and 11-13 overall.

Mississippi State slipped to 3-10 in the league and 13-13 overall. The Bulldogs whipped Auburn by a 71-53 margin in their first meeting in Starkville.

"That was a big win for us," said senior Ronny LeMelle, who scored 13 for the Tigers. "We are trying to build up the momentum so we can finish the regular season strong and have some confidence going into the (SEC) tournament."

The Tigers won the game without freshman forward Josh Dollard, who Lebo said is indefinitely suspended for a violation of unspecified team rules. Lebo said he wasn't sure when or if he forward would be back this season.

LeMelle noted that the Tigers talked about Dollard's absence before the game. "All of us came together and said we were going to have to pick up the slack. Instead of one person doing it, we did it as a team."

A player who picked up as much slack as anybody was freshman Rasheem Barrett, who led all scorers with 22 points in 23 minutes of court time. He hit 5-10 field goals, 3-5 threes and was perfect on his nine free throw attempts.

Barrett, who has been bothered by a back injury in recent weeks, looked like his old self vs. State. "My back feels a lot better," he said with a big smile.

"I think the game showed the lack of experience we had," Barrett added. "We thought we had a big cushion, but in college basketball 20 points is nothing. It can go by in the blink of an eye. That is what we learned tonight. We learned when we have a team down we have to continue to step on them."

Rasheem Barrett hits a clutch free throw in the game's final minute.

The Tigers got a career-high 18 points from Daniel Hayles, who nailed six of nine field goals.

Freshman forward Korvotney Barber contributed nine points, seven rebounds, two blocks and a steal.

Charles Rhodes, who caused Auburn major problems in Starkville, led the Bulldogs in the rematch. The power forward scored 17 points on seven of nine field goal shooting. He added 11 rebounds.

"Rhodes is a man," Lebo said. "He is so much stronger than anybody we have."

State got 16 points from Reginald Delk, 15 from Detric Slater and 13 from Jamont Gordon, who struggled with his ball-handling. He had 10 turnovers in the game, something that Lebo said was a key statistic. The Tigers forced 22 MSU turnovers and had just 14 themselves.

The Bulldogs led by four points in the first half before the Tigers ran off 13 straight to take a 27-16 lead on a pair of free throws by Barrett at the 6:09 mark.

Auburn kept the pressure on with another run, this one a 13-2 streak that ended with the halftime buzzer sounding. The Bulldogs managed only four points in the last 11 minutes and 44 seconds of the half.

Auburn's six made three-pointers, including a 4-4 performance from Daniel Hayles, helped the Tigers build their 40-20 halftime lead.

Another big factor in the large halftime advantage was the normally turnover-prone Tigers had just five in the first 20 minutes compared to 14 for the Bulldogs.

Hayles scored 14 first half points and Barrett added a dozen. "He must have had a career high tonight," said MSU coach Rick Stansbury, who was correct in that assertion about Hayles. Also, the 22 points by Barrett was his SEC high.

After almost missing the second half tip with an extra long session in the locker room, Mississippi State quickly trimmed the Tiger lead to 42-30 at the 16:41 mark on a steal and breakaway basket by Jamont Gordon. That prompted a timeout by Lebo.

"Be sure to give Auburn credit for playing well," said Stansbury, who noted that he was disappointed in his team's performance. "We just didn't compete in the first half," he said. "We played better in the second half, but a 20-point margin is too big a hole to dig out of, especially on the road."

After the timeout, the Tigers quickly took the lead up to 16 points, but MSU kept pushing and narrowed the gap to 51-41 at the 10:52 mark on a stuff by Charles Rhodes.

However, Auburn regrouped and quickly rebuilt its 20-point margin. A three-pointer from the wing by Barrett with 7:35 left put the Tigers ahead 63-43.

Jeff Lebo said he liked his team's hustle and its first half ball movement and setting of screens.

As is normally the case in the final minutes for the Tigers, points were not easy to find. Auburn went cold with its shooting and didn't make another field goal until the 2:58 mark when Barrett nailed a three from the corner. That put the home team ahead 67-53.

The game then got nervous for the Tigers after a pair of treys by Delk and a layup by Jamont Gordon cut the lead to 67-61.

After Hayles missed the front end of a one and one, Frank Tolbert made steal and stuff to take the lead to eight with 58 seconds remaining. That seemed to be enough, but the Tigers needed more after the visitors cut the lead to 71-68 on a three by Delk with 29 seconds left.

Barrett then hit a pair of free throws with 25 seconds left and two more with 16 seconds left to ice the game.

Auburn made 10-25 treys to 6-21 for the visitors. Auburn was 19-25 at the foul line while State hit 7-10. MSU used its size advantage to take a 38-29 rebound margin.

Mississippi State has regular season games remaining at home vs. Georgia, at Arkansas and at home vs. Alabama.

The Tigers, who play at Ole Miss at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, play at Alabama on March 1 before closing the regular season at home on March 4th vs. South Carolina.

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