In what has become a common trend for the Tigers, they played a sloppy basketball game Saturday and if not for the play of Watson this team would not be playing for the title on Sunday. Turning the ball over with regularity (21 times in the game) and making just 8-of-20 free throws, they allowed the outmanned Pioneers to hang around and actually hold the lead with just under three minutes left in the game.
That's when Watson took over. After a Derrick Bird free throw tied the score at 55 just seconds after Denver took the lead, Watson forced a turnover with outstanding perimeter defense. He then came down on the secondary break and drained a long three-pointer to put Auburn ahead for good with just over one minute left in the game.
However, the Pioneers would not go away. Marco Killingsworth put the Tigers up by five with a basket in the paint, two of his 10 points for the game, and it appeared Auburn would put the game away, but B.J. Pratt would have none of that. Coming down quickly following the Killingsworth basket, he drained a three-pointer to cut the lead back to just two with 25 seconds left in the game.
Following a timeout, the Tigers got the ball to point guard Lewis Monroe, who was quickly fouled. Stepping to the line, the sophomore missed the front end of the one-and-one, but junior center Kyle Davis hustled to get the rebound and was fouled in the process. Making the first of two shots, his only point of the game, Davis gave Auburn a three-point lead. A late Denver three-point attempt missed and a Bird dunk at the buzzer made the final 63-58.
"I was feeling it out there," said Watson. "I was in a zone. It felt real good and it felt like I was back in high school when I got in a comfort zone every game."
In addition to Watson and Killingsworth, Marquis Daniels had 12 points and led the team in rebounding with nine while Monroe added eight points, Troy Gaines five and Chris Lollar chipped in two points.
The Tigers shot 46 percent for the game from the field and made a respectable 9-of-23 shots from behind the arc. Denver turned the ball over 18 times and made just 38.5 percent of its shots from the field. The Tigers outrebounded the Pioneers 36-31.
"Denver is a very tough basketball team," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. "They are very rugged and play hard-nosed defense. The thing that got us for the second game in a row was foul trouble. Kyle Davis and Marco Killingsworth were in foul trouble early and we had to play odd lineups. It made it very, very difficult, and at times we were playing with four guards on the floor.
"It is a good thing that Nathan Watson was here because he made some shots that were just tremendous with people on him. The timing of the shots was huge. Every time Denver made a run and we needed a basket, Nathan Watson stepped up and knocked it down."
The first half was an all-too-familiar sight for the Auburn Tigers as turnovers and poor free throw shooting kept the Pioneers within striking distance. The Tigers got off to a very slow start with Killingsworth scoring five of the first seven Auburn points for an early 7-5 lead. Offensive play would go from slow to almost nonexistent for a five-minute stretch in the half as both teams scored just three points with the Pioneers holding a 15-14 advantage. It took the play of the Auburn bench to break the scoring drought.
With just over seven minutes left in the half, Watson scored a basket to give Auburn a 16-15 lead. While the Pioneers would answer back with a Steve Simmons two-pointer, the Tigers built a lead to as many as five points with Gaines and Lollar providing the offense along the way. Leading 28-23 after a Gaines runner in the lane, Auburn gave up four straight points to the Pioneers before a Monroe basket with just three seconds left in the first half gave the Tigers a 30-27 lead at intermission. Auburn made just 4-of-11 free throws in the half while Denver hit 7-of-9 from the charity stripe.
The Tigers return home to face the Southern Miss Golden Eagles on Dec. 30 and face North Texas on Jan. 2 before opening conference play against Vanderbilt on Jan. 8 in Auburn. Tip-off for all three games is scheduled for 7 p.m.