Columbia, S.C.--Looking for their first road win in the SEC there was no better place for the Auburn Tigers to travel than South Carolina where they had won four consecutive games. That once again proved to be just the thing for Coach Jeff Lebo's team as the streak was extended to five Wednesday night as Korvotney Barber led an inspired Auburn effort on the boards with 16 points on eight of nine shooting and 11 rebounds as the Tigers defeated South Carolina 80-75 to remain atop the SEC West standings at 14-9 overall and 4-4 in SEC play.
"This was a big win tonight because we were tied for first place I think coming into the game," Barber says. "We got the road victory. We're just the second Western Division team to win on the road. This was big for us tonight."
After struggling early in the SEC season after a sore shoulder kept him out of the LSU game, Barber has come on in recent weeks and Lebo says he challenged the sophomore to come up big against the Gamecocks Wednesday night and that's just what he did.
"He was bouncy and athletic and quick tonight," Lebo says of Barber. "We did a lot of good things to get him the ball. He caught the ball in there and finished around the basket much better. It was nice to see that from Vot. He's getting better at finishing in there and that's what I like to see.
"We did a nice job on the glass," Lebo adds. "I thought we were very active. We shot the ball at a high rate for us. Fifty-seven percent is outstanding and fifty from three is outstanding on the road."
Facing a South Carolina team that was limited in depth, the Tigers pounded the Gamecocks from start to finish on the boards and finished with a 38-19 advantage on the glass and that proved to be the difference in the game. Dominating the boards and shooting 57 percent from the floor for the game, it still took some late heroics for the Tigers to come away with the victory thanks to 14 turnovers and some hot shooting from South Carolina.
With just over one minute left in the contest Auburn appeared as if it would run away with their first road win of the season as the Tigers led 73-64 following two Rasheem Barrett free throws. That would just be the beginning of a wild finish though as center Brandon Wallace buried a long three pointer with 59 seconds left to cut Auburn's lead to six. Shooting the lights out from the field all night, Auburn had struggled at the line and that continued as Barrett made just one of two and a Bryce Sheldon three cut the lead back to just four.
Another 1-2 at the line by Auburn, this time from Quantez Robertson, gave South Carolina a chance and again Sheldon buried a long three to cut Auburn's lead down to just 75-73. It looked like the free throw struggles would cost the Tigers dearly as Robertson missed two with 44.4 seconds left to give South Carolina the ball back with a chance to tie the game or take the lead. That's when Mr. Hustle Frank Tolbert would once again come up big for his team.
Trying to force the action South Carolina's Tre Kelley pushed the ball into the lane only to lose control of the ball. Johnny on the spot, Tolbert grabbed the ball and threw it off the leg of a South Carolina player before falling out of bounds. Auburn got the ball to Tolbert on the inbounds pass and the junior calmly stepped to the line and made both shots to put the lead back to four. Another stop on defense and two Barrett free throws with just 13.9 seconds remaining put the lid on the win for the Tigers as they got the victory by a final score of 80-75.
"He was active," Lebo says of Tolbert. "He had a bad turnover when we were up nine with two minutes to go and getting ready to ice it down. He made up for it with a great play and an active play. We didn't make some free throws at the end that we could have helped ourselves with a little bit but they made some unbelievable three-points shots in the last few minutes."
In addition to Barber the Tigers got outstanding performances from several players as five players finished in double figures. Quan Prowell scored 15 points on six of nine shooting in one of his better offensive games of the season. Barrett added 12 while both Robertson and Josh Dollard chipped in 11 each. Coming off the bench Tolbert scored seven points and added five rebounds and came up with the biggest play of the game for Auburn Wednesday night.
Quantez Robertson finished with 11 points, seven assists, and just one turnover.
For South Carolina Evaldus Baniulis was the story for the Gamecocks. Coming into the game Baniulis averaged just four points per game but scored 21 Wednesday night on 8-12 shooting. He was particularly deadly from the perimeter as he drained five three-pointers despite shooting just over 20 percent from the year coming into the contest. Auburn's defense did the job on Kelley though. Averaging 17 points per contest the senior was held to just 11 points on 4-17 shooting.
"We wanted to try to get the ball out of his hands as much as possible," Lebo says of Kelley. "I thought Dewayne Reed did an excellent job on him. We doubled him at times. We went box and one on him a couple of times and they hurt that a couple of times with some shots. He's the key for them."
The first half started like an old-fashioned shoot out as both teams started the game red hot from the floor. Dollard, a South Carolina native, scored Auburn's first basket of the game to give the Tigers the lead and from there it was back and forth for much of the half as South Carolina answered back every time Auburn made some noise. Another Dollard basket minutes into the game gave the Tigers the 11-10 advantage but that would be Auburn's last lead of the first half thanks to a run of outside shooting by the Gamecocks that gave them an advantage they held up for the rest of the half.
Baniulis started the run with a short jumper and center Brandon Wallace followed with a three-pointer from the wing. Just a 20 percent shooter from outside the arc, Wallace's jumper gave the Gamecocks a burst of energy that Kelley continued with another three. The basket gave South Carolina its largest lead of the first half at 18-11. The teams would trade scores the next three trips down the court until the Tigers finally cut back the advantage. Down seven a Dollard basket cut the lead back to five. Two Archie Miaway free throws preceded a Barber lay up and just like that Auburn was down just one with just under 10 minutes left in the half.
The lead would stay less than five until the final minutes of the first half when South Carolina again broke things open thanks to some sloppy play by the Tigers. Consecutive turnovers gave the Gamecocks a chance to push ahead and the Gamecocks did just that on baskets by Archie, Baniulis and reserve Chad Gray. Gray's basket and free throw gave South Carolina a seven-point lead with just over two minutes left but once again Auburn answered the bell in a back and forth first 20 minutes. Back-to-back three-pointers by Robertson in a span of 40 seconds brought Auburn back to within one as the teams went into the locker room.
Auburn came out of the break on fire and quickly established that the Tigers were the dominant team on this night. Prowell scored two quick buckets with Baniulis answering with a three-pointer but a Barber basket and back-to-back Barrett three-pointers gave Auburn a four-point advantage to get some breathing room. Prowell added a three moments later to push the Tigers to a seven-point cushion and things looked good for Auburn.
Baniulis wouldn't let the Gamecocks quit on this night as he drained another three and added a two-point basket to cut the lead back to four. Auburn would keep the lead between four and six for the next seven minutes of the second half before the Tigers began to push things open thanks to yet another hustle play from Tolbert. Holding a 67-62 lead with three minutes left Tolbert stole the ball from the Gamecocks and drove to the basket looking to extend the lead.
Getting to the rim only to be shoved from behind, Tolbert was awarded an intentional foul from the officials. After making both free throws to push the lead to seven Auburn momentarily took the wind out of the sails of the Gamecocks as a rebound dunk by Barber put Auburn up 71-62. That would set the stage for a wild finish as Auburn won on the road for the first time this season and became just the second SEC West team to win a road game.
"That was a big play by Frank Tolbert," Lebo says. "We went to a double team and he made the steal. The intentional foul was a big game-changing play from him."
The Tigers return home Saturday afternoon to face a tough Ole Miss squad at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. The tip-off for the contest is scheduled for 1 p.m. and there is no television for the game.