Waller Sizzles As Tigers Stop State 91-76

Tay Waller and the Auburn Tigers won a third straight SEC game, knocking off Mississippi State on Saturday.

Auburn, Ala.--Auburn and Tay Waller came out hot, survived a strong run from Mississippi State, and made a second half charge to take a 91-76 SEC men's basketball victory on Saturday.

Waller, a junior guard, scored a career-high 32 points for the Tigers. He hit 8-12 three-pointers and 4-5 free throws. He added nine rebounds and had two assists with just one turnover in 32 minutes.

The win improved the Tigers to 5-5 in the conference, the first time they have had a non-losing record in SEC games in the month of February since Lebo took over as head coach.

Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said he was impressed with Auburn's performance, particularly by Waller. "I don't know if any of them were open, easy shots," Stansbury said. "Give him credit. He jumped up and made shots."

Auburn's guard play was the difference. DeWayne Reed scored 16 points for the Tigers and added seven rebounds and six assists with just two turnovers.

Auburn's bench outscored the MSU bench 26-6 with freshman guard Frankie Sullivan leading the group with 14 points. Sullivan made 5-9 field goals, 2-6 threes, 2-2 foul shots and added two assists and one steal in 27 minutes.

Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said that Sullivan deserved the extended playing time. "It was one of the best games he has played all-around," Lebo noted.

The Tigers improved to 16-9 overall while the Bulldogs dropped to 16-9 overall and 6-4 in the SEC.

Stansbury had praise for Auburn's Lebo and noted the Tigers are tough to beat at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. "Jeff does a terrific job," Stansbury said. "He is one of the best coaches in the league. He always has his teams prepared well. They came out and hit us in the mouth early."

Waller sparked Auburn early as he hit his first five shots, all threes, to put the Tigers on top 18-8 at the 15:41 mark. The junior's sixth tray attempt less than a minute later hung on the rim before falling off for a rebound.

The lead grew to 25-10 as Korvotney Barber, who made 7-8 free throws, hit two free throws at the 13:37 mark.

Auburn led by 17 points as Brendon Knox took a pass from Reed and got a stuff plus free throw as he was fouled on the play. That made the score 32-15 with 11:10 left in the half. However, from that point on the Bulldogs outplayed the home team into intermission.

The combination of a zone defense, which slowed Auburn's scoring, and good perimeter shooting by the Bulldogs were responsible for the comeback.

Stansbury said his team's man-to-man defense wasn't working so it was time to try something different. "As crazy as it sounds against a team shooting threes you go to a zone to change the rhythm," the coach stated.

Mississippi State cut Auburn's lead under double-digits at the 5:45 mark when Dee Bost hit a three-pointer to make the score 34-27.

The Bulldogs pulled even at 40-40 on two free throws by Varnado with 1:07 left in the half. At the break the Tigers were on top 42-40.

The halftime statistics featured 50 percent shooting from the Tigers, who were 14-28 from the field. Mississippi State hit just 40 percent, but made the same number of field goals as the Tigers after getting off 35 shots.

The Bulldogs more than matched Auburn's three-point shooting in the first half by making 7-19 as Bost and Barry Stewart each hit 3-5 treys.

Waller finished the half 5-7 on treys and led all scorers at the break with 15 points, four more than Varnado.

Varnado finished as the leading scorer for the Bulldogs with 20 points. He blocked four shots and added five rebounds. Stewart finished with 18 points for MSU, Bost scored 13 and Ravern Johnson had 11 points.

Tay Waller drives to the basket vs. the Bulldogs.

Waller got Auburn started in the second half with another three, but the Bulldogs pulled ahead 46-45 as Bost made one of two free throws at the 18:28 mark. State built the lead to 50-45 at the 17:39 mark on a layup by Ravern Johnson, but that lead didn't last long.

Waller hit a three, Reed hit a three and then made a pair of free throws at the 15:49 mark to put the Tigers on top 53-52. Auburn never trailed the rest of the game to the delight of 6,451 at the coliseum.

A three by Sullivan and a fastbreak dunk by Knox plus another three by Sullivan stretched the lead to 63-54 at the 12:45 mark.

Auburn increased the lead to 10 points at 73-63 on another three by Waller with 8:48 to play. State cut the lead to six, but Auburn didn't let the visitors get any closer and began puling away in the final minutes as the Bulldogs struggled with their shooting to close the game.

"The first 10 or 12 minutes of the game we were on fire and the last eight minutes they were on fire," Lebo said of the first half. "The problem when you play them is to try to figure out how to defend them because they play four shooters and then they have Varnado inside who can score one-on-one in there so if you double him they have shooters on the perimeter that you have to leave. If you don't, he is certainly capable. We did a good job of mixing on him to try to keep to keep him a little bit uncomfortable.

"I thought Vot (Barber), and Brendon Knox again, did a nice job," Lebo added. "Tay was really good offensively. Not only was he good offensively, he rebounded the basketball and that was a key for us I think because they took a lot of long shots, and there were lot of long rebounds and we did a pretty good job on the boards. They still got 13 (offensive rebounds). Overall, it was just a great win for our kids."

Stansbury said he wasn't displeased with his team's effort noting they could have given up after falling down 17 points on the road. To our kids credit they found a way to fight back," he said, but noted that Waller, Reed and Sullivan hit big baskets in the second half to spark the Tigers to a 49-point total after intermission.

For the game the Tigers shot 48.2 percent from the field. Auburn hit 27-56 field goals. MSU hit 28-72 field goals for 38.9 percent.

The Bulldogs put up 35 threes and made 10. Auburn shot 27 threes and made 13.

Auburn held a 39-37 rebounding edge and had 10 turnovers, one less than the visitors.

"It just felt good today," Waller said. "It shoot-around, I was very loose today for some reason and it just carried over toe the game. It felt good the whole game."

Commenting on his best game in his first season at Auburn, Waller said he had a lot of similar games last season at Okaloosa-Walton. "Just about every time in junior college, but this is my first time doing it here so it felt really good to do it here for the first time. The coaches knew I could do it so I'm glad they stuck with me and believed in me."

With the Tigers winning three straight games, Lebo said, "We're just battling, that's all. Our kids are battling one game at a time. Obviously, each game is important and there's not one that is more important than the other.

"It looks like we're playing with a little bit of confidence right now. We can't let it go if we lose a game and we can't be fragile with that. We know what we can do when we play together and play tough defense. When you look at teams in college basketball, there*s fragileness to them. It use to be that if you lost four or five, you became fragile. Now, if you lose one game, you*re fragile. We can't get too excited and we can*t get too down if we lose a game."

The Tigers return to action with a 6:30 p.m. CST road game at Georgia.

Game notes: Former Auburn associate athletic director Virgil Starks was honored at halftime with the Auburn players and coaching staff delaying their halftime talks to be there for the program...Brendon Knox was impressive in eight minutes of playing time. The junior center was 2-2 from the field, 4-5 at the foul line and added three rebounds. His eight points were his high scoring total in SEC play. "He is playing much better," Lebo said. "I think the last game gave him some confidence. I thought he did some good things in his time. He had eight points in nine minutes and three rebounds while battling Varnado in there. He's getting better every single day. He's worked hard in practice, he's shown improvement in practice and he certainly deserves to be in there, maybe even more than he's playing...Sullivan's 14 points were the most he has had in an SEC game...MSU's guard Bost said that Auburn "played really good" and added, "You have to give them credit."

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