For veteran Auburn coach Cliff Ellis and his Tigers, it was an embarrassing bon voyage party.
For the visitors from the Mid-American Conference, it was a big-time victory on an SEC team's homecourt as the scrappy Broncos surprised the Tigers 72-54 to end Auburn's four-game winning streak.
Western Michigan won the game with solid all-around play, including five players scoring in double figures. However, the real key to victory was in-your-face defensive pressure for most of the 40 minutes. Auburn didn't handle it well, particularly in the first half with 15 of its 22 turnovers in the opening 20 minutes.
As sophomore forward Marco Killingsworth aptly summed up the evening, the Tigers dug themselves a hole in the first half they couldn't get out of, particularly with the visitors hitting 52.4 percent of their second half shots.
McCullum, the third-year head coach of the Broncos who got his college start as an assistant under Ellis at South Alabama, refused to say the pupil outcoached the teacher. However, he did say that it was a special night for him because the Birmingham native wanted to do well on his return to his home state in front of family and friends.
"We are appreciative of the opportunity to come down and play an SEC-caliber team," McCullum said. "For our team and our league to continue to get the respect and recognition we deserve we have to have success against teams from the so-called upper echelon conferences. We are proud to win because it helps both our program and our league."
Auburn shot a miserable 35.3 percent and made just 5-18 three-pointers and 13-19 free throws. The Broncos hit 7-19 threes, 15-21 free throws and 51 percent of their fields goals. Ellis said his team looked like it started pressing in the first half when it missed a series of easy shots and the Tigers never really had an extended streak of good shooting.
McCullum said the Broncos needed to hold their own on the boards against the more athletic Tigers and they did that nicely, matching Auburn's total of 31 rebounds. "Fortunately, our guys made shots," the coach said. "Our defense has been our one constant all year."
Forward Marco Killingsworth looks to score for the Tigers. He sophomore finished with 15 points.
The victory improved Western Michigan's record to 6-2 and dropped Auburn to 6-2 as the Tigers prepare for a pre-dawn departure on Wednesday for the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico. "We have got to bounce back," said Ellis, whose team plays the host team, Puerto-Rico Mayaguez, on Friday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. CST.
"I think we will be tested," Ellis said of the upcoming tournament. "I think our character will be tested. We have got to go play three games. If you sulk it is going to come back and bite you. Basketball is a strange game and every night you have got to go out and give it your best shot everytime."
Auburn jumped to a 6-0 lead in a minute and 20 seconds. It took the Tigers almost eight minutes to score six more points. During that stretch the visitors scored eight uncontested points to take the lead at the 14:53 mark.
The Broncos forced 15 first half turnovers for the Tigers, who also shot just 30 percent from the floor. The result was an ugly 35-19 deficit for the home team against a Western Michigan team that hit 50 percent from the field, including five of 10 three-pointers.
Guard Nathan Watson plays defense for the Tigers.
Auburn tried to snap out of its funk with a smaller lineup to start the second with little-used walk-on guard Nathan Watson in for center Kyle Davis. However, the Broncos continue to shoot well and built the lead to 21 points on a three-pointer Reggie Berry at the 16:58 mark.
The Tigers cut the lead to back under the halftime margin on back-to-back three-pointers by Derrick Bird to make the score 47-33 at the 14:44 mark. The Tigers cut the gap to 12 at 53-41 with 9:42 to play on a pair of free throws by Killingsworth. However, that is as close as the Tigers could get
Marquis Daniels led all scorers with 18 points as the senior hit 7-13 field goals. Killingsworth scored 15 points and added a dozen rebounds. No other Tiger scored in double figures.
In contrast, four starters and one reserve scored 11 or more points for the Broncos. Point guard Robby Collum led the winners with 17 points and thoroughly outplayed Auburn's point guards. Auburn's Lewis Monroe did not score in 29 minutes and had just two assists. Chris Lollar played 11 minutes and had no assists or points.
Center Anthony Kann, who hit 5-7 shots and added 10 rebounds, scored 12 points for the visitors. Forward Mike Williams added 12 points while guard Ben Reed and reserve guard Reggie Berry added 11 points apiece.
For the Tigers, Kyle Davis added nine points and four rebounds before fouling out after 21 minutes of action.
"I thought turnovers again started the whole issue for us," Ellis said. "That has been a problem for us throughout the whole year."