Auburn's 80-68 basketball victory over the Bayou Bengals on Wednesday improved AU's record to 7-8 in the league, moving Auburn into a four-way tie in the division with Mississippi State, Alabama and Ole Miss, the team the Tigers will close the regular season against on Saturday in Oxford, Miss.
The Tigers accomplished the victory without head coach Jeff Lebo, who was at home trying to recover from an illness. Associate head coach John Cooper, just like he did last year when Lebo got sick before a loss at Arkansas, took over the head coaching duties. He evened his record at 1-1 as the Tigers improved to 17-13 overall, assuring themselves of a winning record for the first time in the Lebo Era.
Cooper said he lectured the Tigers at halftime and again during a second half timeout about playing too passively and challenged them to be more aggressive. That strategy worked out nicely as the Tigers became the aggressors and took charge of what had been a see-saw contest.
"I told all of these guys before the game, and even in a timeout, you can't be afraid of success," Cooper said. "I didn't think we had enough energy early in the second half. You have to go out and grab it.
"The same thing can be said for a championship," he added. "This is what you play for. This is what you practice for. I have been fortunate enough to be on the bench and win a couple of championships in my coaching career. More so than anything, I want the guys to enjoy the moment, understand what is going on, but not be afraid to grab it and let the chips fall where they may."
The Tigers put four players in double figures in the scoring column. Josh Dollard led the way with 16 points and added six rebounds, two steals and an assist.
The victory, combined with losses by Mississippi State and Ole Miss, puts those teams at 7-8 in the league along with Alabama and AU. If Auburn wins on Saturday at Ole Miss, the Tigers will finish in no worse than a tie for first with an 8-8 league mark. If Alabama defeats Mississippi State in Starkville, the Tigers and Tide will be tied at 8-8. AU would earn the top seed from the SEC West for the SEC Tournament by virtue of sweeping the season series. If Mississippi State and Auburn win, the Bulldogs would be the top seed based on their sweep of AU.
"It is very exciting, but at the same time we have got to go and get the job done," Dollard said of the opportunity to finish atop the division. "We can't think about that now. We have to stay focused because the league has been up and down all season. We just have to stay focused, stay humble and get the job done"
Dollard said AU's second half success was due to playing more up tempo and doing a better job on the boards. "In the first half they really killed us on the offensive glass," he said. "The emphasis in the second half was to box out. We got the job done and we got some transition points and came out on top."
Sophomore forward Josh Dollard scores for the Tigers.
Korvotney Barber scored 14 points and led the Tigers in rebounds with eight.
"We are learning how to play together and we are learning what it takes to win," said Barber, who tweaked his ankle in the final minutes. However, the sophomore forward said it is nothing serious.
Barber said Auburn's cause was helped with LSU playing without Glenn "Big Baby" Davis. "It was a big difference not having Big Baby out there," he said.
Freshman DeWayne Reed scored 12 points for the Tigers and added six assists with just two turnovers in 31 minutes at point guard while Quantez Robertson spent much of the game at two-guard.
Quan Prowell added 11 points and three rebounds as the Tigers won their 15th home game, tying the school record for the most wins in Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum history.
LSU got a career-high 24 points from Tasmin Mitchell, who hit 10-20 field goals while adding seven rebounds. Garrett Temple added 13 points for the Bayou Bengals, who fell to 4-11 in the SEC and 15-14 overall.
Auburn had a season-low nine turnovers, six less than the visitors, who held a 38-30 rebounding lead.
Auburn outshot the visitors, hitting an even 50 percent from the field, including a season-best percentage from three-point range as the Tigers made 8-15 treys. LSU hit 6-14 threes.
AU outscored LSU 18-10 at the foul line. Both teams struggled there. AU hit 64.3 percent as Barber hit only 2-7 while LSU made 55.6 percent of its foul shots.
Auburn jumped to a quick 6-0 lead on a Barber tip-in at the 18:07 mark, but didn't score again until 13:38 was left in the first half. By that time the Tigers were down 12-8 after a layup by Robertson ended the drought.
The Tigers regained the lead with 9:28 left in the half on a three-pointer from the wing by Tolbert to make the score 20-19.
AU built the lead to five points while holding for the final shot, but a questionable traveling call on Prowell gave LSU the final shot of the half, a three-pointer by Temple that narrowed the Auburn lead to 37-35 at halftime.
LSU outshot Auburn 48.3 percent to 46.4 percent in the first half and held a 21-14 advantage in rebounds. AU countered that by making 5-10 threes in the first half while the visitors made 3-5.
Auburn took the lead for good at the 16:08 mark of the second half on a layup by Dollard to make the score 43-42. The margin reached double figures with 9:34 to play on a three-pointer from the top of the circle by Reed, putting AU ahead 60-48.
LSU was never able to make a serious run on the Tigers, who kept the lead from nine to 14 points the rest of the way.
"When they make threes like they did tonight, they can be a pretty good team," LSU coach John Brady said of Auburn. "They made timely baskets on us tonight. I told Jeff after we played them the first time that I liked the flow of their team and the way they played together. I think he has done a nice job, and they they shoot the ball like they did tonight it makes it a little more difficult."
On Saturday the Tigers will be going for a fourth straight win. The last time they accomplished that was in 2003.
While Auburn plays at Ole Miss, Alabama travels to Mississippi State in the other SEC West contest that will determine who finishes on top in the division.
Statistics, Box Score on Team Front