Crunch Time For Rallying Tigers

Rasheem Barrett and Lucas Hargrove talk about the Tigers' recent turnaround as they travel to Starkville, Miss., to take on Mississippi State in a crucial SEC contest.

Auburn, Ala.—On the night of Feb. 4, Auburn returned home from Oxford, Miss., after suffering a 19-point loss to Ole Miss. The defeat dropped the Tigers to 13-9 overall and just 2-5 in the SEC.

Any sort of post season play seemed out of question at the time.

Just three weeks later the Rebels made a return visit to Auburn on Wednesday and were sent away with a 77-64 loss. The victory for Auburn was the fifth in six games with the lone defeat a close one at the hands of SEC-leading LSU on the road.

The Tigers make a return visit to the Magnolia State on Saturday to take on Mississippi State. However, at 18-10 and 7-6 in conference play the Tigers have a lot on the line with their recent run of wins in the SEC.

"It's a very big game," senior Rasheem Barrett says. "I've had a lot of big games since I've been here, but this is probably the biggest one since I've been here in my four years."

Auburn is 87th in the country in the latest RPI, which must continue to improve for the Tigers to get an NCAA bid. The remaining schedule is at MSU, at Alabama and home versus LSU, all of which will be difficult games. However, the way Auburn has played of late they're certainly winnable.

"Everything is coming together–team chemistry," junior Lucas Hargrove explains. "When you're winning it's contagious. The momentum gets rolling.

"I think the biggest difference in our team is people know their role," Hargrove adds. "Everybody on the team knows their role. Last year and even earlier in this season, people didn't know their role and were unhappy with their role. I think now everybody understands their role on the team and it's coming together. That's when things go good and you start winning games."

LSU, at 12-1 in league play, has already clinched the SEC West. Just three weeks ago Auburn looked to be headed for possibly a No. 5 or No. 6 seed, but Saturday's winner between the Tigers and Bulldogs will be in sole possession of second place in the West with two games remaining.

"We know what we've got to do and we know the standings and all that," Hargrove notes. "All that really doesn't count when the game is going on. You've got to play as hard as you can each game and pray that they have an off night and you have a good night."

Between the regular season and SEC Tournament in Tampa, Auburn probably needs four more wins to feel good about its chances of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2002-2003 season. Hargrove says that the players are reminded all the time of the old cliché, ‘One game at a time.'

"Coach (Jeff) Lebo and Coach (John) Cooper stress that all the time," Hargrove says. "You've got to take one game at a time. When you start looking ahead, that's when you start losing games."

"I think every game from here on out is a different feeling," Barrett responds. "We're getting closer and closer to what we want to do. (Wednesday) night (against Ole Miss) was emotional, this game coming up is going to be emotional, and the next one after that."

Aside from the loss at Ole Miss in early February, the Tigers have played generally well on the road this year. The Tigers are 3-5 with most of the losses close ones. However, the three wins are against teams with not-so-stellar seasons–Virginia, Arkansas and Georgia.

A win at RPI No. 84 Mississippi State would help the Tigers' argument if they are on the NCAA bubble come selection Sunday on March 15.

"In the past we usually lose our away games," Barrett notes, "but Lebo said we want to focus on winning key games away. If you can win in another team's arena with their fans, that's pretty hard to do in the SEC. We've found ways to pull it off this year. Hopefully we can go into Mississippi State and do the same thing."

Auburn beat the Bulldogs at home 91-76 on Feb. 14 in a game that was fast-paced with both teams playing small ball.

"They've got guards and guards and guards and some more guards," Hargrove jokes. "To top it off they've got (Jarvis) Varnado down low. You've got to get out on the perimeter and get out on their three-point shooting and try to score against Varnado. He's long and a great shot blocker."

Having just two weeks in between games versus State, which is in an almost identical position as Auburn at 17-11 and 7-6, Barrett says that the short time between games doesn't matter much as far as preparation. It's all about intensity and execution once you get into the games.

"You can draw it up all day long," Barrett states. "‘They're going to run this play and they're going to do this.' Like playing Ole Miss and Terrico White. You know what he's going to do, but it was his night. It just depends on how you play a team and if you're going to come out with that defensive intensity. People say X's and O's and you saw what they did last time, but it really doesn't matter to tell you the truth."

Tipoff for Auburn at Mississippi State is set for 5 p.m. with television coverage on Fox Sports Net.

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