With the combination of Auburn' 65-59 home victory over Georgia on Sunday and a 71-69 win by Ole Miss over Vanderbilt, the Tigers go into next week's final game of the regular season vs. Arkansas with a one-game lead in the conference race.
The Tigers made nine of 10 free throws in the game's final 44 seconds on Sunday at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum to pull out the victory. With the win Auburn clinched its first regular season SEC women's hoops title since 1989 when the Tigers were NCAA runnerup.
"We made the defensive stops we had to make and hit some big free throws when we needed to make them," said Auburn head coach Nell Fortner. "I am really proud of the effort of this team."
Auburn managed to win before the third largest home crowd in AU women's hoops history, 7,006, despite shooting just 38.2 percent from the field. However, another shooting statistic was the difference as the Tigers nailed 20-24 free throws.
With the victory the Tigers improved to 11-2 in the league and 26-2 overall. Georgia, which gave Auburn one of its two losses, continued its slump with a fifth straight loss and dropped to 5-7 in the SEC and 15-12 overall.
Fortner said when she signed the current seniors on the team winning the SEC was something that she told them they could accomplish. On Sunday after clinching at least a share of the title, the coach reminded her seniors about what she had told them.
"Winning the SEC was a vision we had for this group," she said.
Fortner added that it felt great to clinch the title, but the Tigers have work to do as they close the regular season next week with a home game against Arkansas. "We don't want to share the SEC title with anybody," she said. "We want to win on Sunday and have it all for ourselves."
Senior DeWanna Bonner led all scorers with 22 points. She was just 6-16 from the field, but made 9-10 free throws. She also led Auburn in rebounding with nine.
Bonner pointed out that a victory on Sunday will give the Tigers a perfect record at home this season as well as the outright title, two things she said were goals the team set in the preseason after being knocked out in the first round of the 2008 NCAA tournament.
The only negative from Sunday's game is that freshman forward Chantel Hilliard, who had one of her best performances of the season, was carried off the court with a knee injury suffered late in the contest. Fortner said it is too early to know how serious it is, but she could say the freshman played a strong game.
"Hopefully she will be okay," Fortner said. "We are already thin at the post with Jordan Greenleaf (knee surgery) out for the season."
The Tigers got 10 points apiece from senior Trevesha Jackson and sophomore Alli Smalley.
Jackson, another post player, played with a sore knee, but should be closer to full speed with a week's rest before the next game, the coach noted. "She is such a battler," Fortner said of Jackson, who was giving up five inches in height on defense matching up against Georgia's 6-5 center, Angel Robinson.
Senior Whitney Boddie scored eight points and dished out nine assists with just three turnovers and a steal while her teammate Hilliard came off the bench and added eight points and four rebounds in 21 minutes. However, the freshman forward was obviously in serious pain when she was carried off the floor.
"I thought she was outstanding tonight," Fortner said of 6-2 Hilliard. "I thought she was a huge difference-maker for us. I think she gives us a glimpse of what she is capable of in the future. I don't know what her status is with her injury yet. She has to go do all of the tests. We hope it is nothing serious. There is not any kind of diagnosis right now at all."
Georgia was led by Robinson who scored 17 points and pulled down 14 rebounds. The 6-5 post player hit 8-14 field goals. Porsha Phillips added 13 points for Georgia.
Senior Sherell Hobbs (12) and her teammates celebrate clinching the SEC title.
The first half was dominated by defense with both teams playing man-to-man.
Bonner hit a three-pointer to give the Tigers an early advantage, but Georgia led almost the entire half. UGA built the lead to as many as six points when Christy Marshall's fastbreak basket at the 2:41 mark put the Bulldogs up 24-18.
By halftime the Tigers had cut the lead to 29-27 as Bonner hit three free throws with 3.5 seconds remaining before intermission.
At the break the Tigers were hitting just 32.4 percent of their field goals. Auburn made 11-34 field goals while UGA hit 12-26 (46.2 percent). Both teams were 2-5 on threes. Auburn was 3-3 on free throws and UGA 3-4.
Auburn kept the game close by out-rebounding Georgia 20-17 and having three fewer turnovers than the Bulldogs, who committed nine.
Smalley hit a three-pointer to open the second half to put Auburn back on top. Auburn led much of the second half, but couldn't put the Bulldogs away. UGA regained the lead at 45-44 with 8:56, but Auburn took the lead for good with six minutes left at 50-49 on a basket by Hilliard.
With Auburn holding a precarious 54-53 lead, Bonner hit a jumper with 1:24 left to play. Smalley then extended the lead to five with 44 seconds as she hit two free throws. The Tigers then held on to the lead as Georgia intentionally fouled the rest of the way.
Veteran Georgia head coach Andy Landers said, "I thought we played, overall, very well defensively. We were very good in the halfcourt pretty much all night.
"We had some breakdowns in transition defense a couple of times, probably four or five times, which some of that is Auburn being really good at that."
Auburn shot just 38.2 percent for the game to 40.6 for Georgia.
"We had great looks today," Fortner said of her team's field goal percentage. "Who would have thought that we would have shot like that here in our own gym? We just didn't knock them down today. We can't let that continue to happen. We had some good looks.
"I thought the offense was giving us some good things, but I also thought that in the first half we had too much one-on-one basketball," Fortner added." We stopped that in the second half, but we just really struggled to knock some shots down."
The Tigers are off until Sunday when they close the regular season with a 2 p.m. home game vs. Arkansas.
AUBURN 65, GEORGIA 59
GEORGIA (15-12, 5-7 SEC) Robinson,Angel 8-14 1-1 17; Phillips,Porsha 6-10 1-1 13; Taylor,Danielle 4-13 1-3 9; Marshall,Christy 4-15 0-0 8; Puleo,Angela 2-5 1-2 6; Houts,Ashley 2-7 0-0 5; Rhoden,Jaleesa 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 26-64 5-9 59.
AUBURN (26-2, 11-2 SEC) Bonner, DeWanna 6-16 9-10 22; Smalley, Alli 2-7 4-6 10; Jackson, Trevesha 4-7 2-2 10; Boddie, Whitney 4-10 0-0 8; Hilliard, Chantel 4-6 0-0 8; Hobbs, Sherell 1-7 5-6 7; Carrier, KeKe 0-1 0-0 0; Hobbs, Reneisha 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-55 20-24 65.
Georgia 29 30 59
Auburn 27 38 65
3-point goals--Georgia 2-11 (Houts,Ashley 1-5; Puleo,Angela 1-4; Marshall,Christy 0-2; Auburn 3-8 (Smalley, Alli 2-6; Bonner, DeWanna 1-2).
Fouled out--Georgia-Puleo,Angela, Auburn-None.
Rebounds--Georgia 39 (Robinson,Angel 14), Auburn 36 (Bonner, DeWanna 9).
Assists--Georgia 17 (Houts,Ashley 9), Auburn 14 (Boddie, Whitney 9).
Total fouls--Georgia 20, Auburn 12.
Technical fouls--Georgia-None, Auburn-None.