"It all started on defense," said junior guard Tay Waller when asked what the key was to Auburn's comeback. "The first half they got a lot of open shots. We went in a halftime and Coach (Jeff Lebo) said we had to be more active on defense."
Waller's second half defense was impressive to go along with his game-high 19 points. He finished the SEC vs. Atlantic 10 matchup with five of Auburn's 11 steals and helped make it difficult for the Colonials to get open looks like they did the first 20 minutes.
Waller noted that Lebo challenged his team at halftime to rally after intermission. "He said it was one thing to get beat, but it is another thing to stay beat," Waller said. "Basketball is a game of two halves. We came out in the second half and turned it on."
Waller hit 5-13 threes as the Tigers made 12-28 treys in the game.
"Tay finally got going in the second half," Lebo said. "I thought he hung his head a little bit in the first half. He wasn't particularly alert defensively. I tried to challenge Tay to not just be known as a shooter. I want him to be known as a basketball player. When his shot is not going in the bucket he has to find ways to help us in other areas."
Waller wasn't the only guard who played well for the Tigers, who improved their record to 2-1 while George Washington fell to 2-1. Freshman Frankie Sullivan was the game's second-leading scorer. He finished with 17 points and did a good job on defense.
Tay Waller shoots for the Tigers.
Sullivan, who missed the opening game and about three weeks of practice with an ankle sprain, said he is about 90 percent physically, but he looked good on offense and defense vs. the Colonials. He made 4-9 field goals, including 4-7 threes, and added two assists and two steals with two turnovers in 28 minutes.
DeWayne Reed added nine points, four assists and a steal in 34 minutes in a starting role at point guard. He hit 7-9 free throws and came through in the clutch late when GW was intentionally fouling in a comeback attempt of its own.
Auburn, which struggled on the boards in a loss to Mercer, enjoyed a 37-26 edge in rebounds. Auburn had 14 turnovers, three less than Colonials.
Trailing 44-29 at halftime, the Tigers got the margin under double figures with 14:59 left to play as Sullivan hit three free throws after he was fouled on a jumper from the corner and Hargrove hit a three-point shot from the top of the circle.
Auburn cut the lead to 51-46 on a running bank shot by Waller and with 11:41 left to play Waller took a pass from Hargrove on a fastbreak and pulled up to nail a three-pointer to cut the margin to 51-49.
The Tigers caught the Colonials with 10:18 left in the game when Waller hit a three-point basket from the left wing to put the Tigers up 52-51.
The Colonials regained the lead at 56-54 on a three by Tony Taylor, but Auburn pulled ahead again on a three-point shot by Sullivan to make the score 59-57.
The Tigers stretched the lead to five on a three-pointer by Hargrove to beat the shot clock with 6:41 left.
Auburn's lead grew to 69-62 on an impressive fastbreak play when Sullivan's acrobatic, left-handed pass to Barber was converted into a layup by the senior with a foul shot for the old-fashioned three.
The Tigers stretched the lead to double figures at 72-62 with 2:48 to play when Waller hit a three off of a fastbreak.
The Tigers were in a big hole at halftime for several reasons. First and foremost, they allowed the Colonials to hit 56.7 percent of their shots, including 10-17 three-pointers. Noel Wilmore, a 6-4 senior guard, popped in four on five tries in the first 20 minutes. He did not score in the second half.
At the same time the Tigers struggled from the field, making just 36.4 percent of their first half shots.
Compounding the problems were three fouls on Auburn's leading scorer, Barber.
Auburn outscored the Colonials 54-27 in the second half to awaken the crowd of 3,332 that didn't have much reason to get excited earlier in the game.
"It was a good lesson for our team," Lebo said. "Fifteen points is not very much in college basketball. Whether you are up or down, it can evaporate very quickly.
I really liked our defensive intensity most of the second half," Lebo added. "I thought they had a hard time getting anything going offensively."
Auburn shot 44 percent from the field and 42.9 percent on threes. GW hit 46.3 percent from the field, but just 33.3 percent in the second half. The Colonials made 12-26 threes andd 9-13 free throws.
The Tigers return to action on Tuesday with a 7 p.m. home game vs. Bethune-Cookman.