"I'm proud of our team," Coach Cliff Ellis said following the hard-earned victory. "It was a physical game and the thing that impressed me about the physicalness of the game is how well we rebounded. I thought that really stood out with regards to our play. I thought our guys did a good job handling that aspect of it."
Trailing 20-19 in the rebound department at halftime, the Tigers stepped up their play dramatically in the second stanza. Dominating in the paint despite a wave of inside players off the Rutgers bench, Auburn was able to pull away in the second half thanks to their performance underneath. With Killingsworth leading the way they outscored the visitors 44-24 in the paint leading to the win.
Marco Killingsworth plays tough defense in Sunday's win.
"That was the key for us to win the way we won," Ellis said. "If you would have told me it would have been a double-digit victory I would have been surprised, but the boards were the key to that. We kept talking at halftime about the physicalness of the game, that we would have to be tough with the ball and protect it and we have to get in there and mix it up rebounding wise."
In addition to Killingsworth's solid day, seniors Derrick Bird and Marquis Daniels picked up the slack for the Tigers. Bird had one of his finest career outings with 19 points and eight rebounds, making 9-of-10 free throws on a day when the Tigers made just 21-of-36 from the charity stripe. Despite an uncharacteristic six of Auburn's 22 turnovers on the day, Daniels had his usual stellar game with 15 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. It was his 10th career double-double and he impressed Rutgers Coach Gary Waters with his all-around play Sunday.
"I'm going to tell you Daniels is a great player," Waters said following the game. "He's going to be great after this. We put a lot of pressure on him and he still did some good things. Killingsworth I thought did some good things because he's the recipient of everybody else's stuff. They drop it down to him and he completed the play. I thought Daniels handled a lot of our pressure because we came at him pretty hard. He's going to be a great player this year."
Derrick Bird pulls down one of his eight rebounds in the game.
Tied at the half, Auburn came out firing in the second stanza led by Bird. After two quick Lewis Monroe baskets, Bird scored five consecutive points to give the Tigers a 47-40 lead. A layup by Killingsworth at the 15:42 mark put Auburn up 49-40 and things looked like they would be easy for the Tigers in the second half. Jerome Coleman, who finished the game with 18 points on just 5-of-14 shooting, drained a long three-pointer and after a basket by Juel Wiggan following a steal, the lead was down to four in a span of just 14 seconds.
The Scarlet Knights would get no closer the rest of the way thanks to the steady play of Bird, Daniels and Killingsworth. Both teams traded baskets back-and-forth in the second half and the game remained close with Auburn holding that same four-point advantage at 68-64 with just 5:31 left after a Ricky Shields basket, two of his game-high 19 points.
From that moment on it was all Auburn with Rutgers scoring just six points the rest of the game despite ample opportunities, particularly at the free throw line. While Auburn didn't burn up the nets from the line, making just 13-of-23 in the half, Rutgers was horrendous. Shooting 60.7 percent for the year coming into the game from the free throw stripe, the Scarlet Knights made just 10-22 Sunday, including 6-of-16 the final 10 minutes of the game. That allowed Auburn to pull away for the 12-point win and a big inter-conference victory over a Big East school that played physical basketball, a style Auburn will see quite a lot this season.
"It was a physical game," Daniels said. "It will get us ready for SEC play, the Ole Miss' and the Mississippi State's. They play tough defense. It will help us out. There is still some things we need to work on, I see we had 22 turnovers, we have to cut down on that. Our free throw percentage was not as good as it should be but there are still some things we need to work on. We focused on winning the boards and we came out after halftime and did a great job with it."
The first half was the Killingsworth vs. Shields show as Auburn's gunner had 16 points while Shields, averaging just 11.8 points per game coming in, scored 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Leading 29-25 after a Killingsworth layup, Shields put the Rutgers team on his back. Three consecutive trips down the floor, he drained long three-pointers to give the Scarlet Knights a five-point advantage before Auburn's trio would answer back.
Two Bird free throws made the score 34-31 before Shields scored again to make it a five-point advantage. With 2:34 left in the half Killingsworth scored a basket and just 17 seconds later Daniels cut the lead to one an a layup of his own after a steal. A Killingsworth slam followed by a free throw gave the Tigers a two-point lead with just seconds left in the half. A Mike Sherrod basket to close the half tied the score at 38 at the break.
The Tigers return to action Saturday when they are hosts to the Murray State Racers at 3 p.m. The Racers are coming off a victory over Western Kentucky, who defeated Auburn 89-70 in Nashville on Dec. 1.