Blasting out to a commanding 54-32 lead at the end of the first half, the Tigers were well on their way to the first SEC title in 20 years for the program. In building a 22-point lead, the Tigers dished out 11 assists and had zero turnovers. With seniors Whitney Boddie, DeWanna Bonner, Sherell Hobbs and Trevesha Jackson playing their final game at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, coach Nell Fortner said the group started their coronation as champions early with that tremendous first half.
"I don't know," Fortner answered when asked to describe her team‘s first 20 minutes. "I can't explain. When you don't turn the ball over, you have an opportunity to score that many points. That was just some really good basketball. We were very focused and very disciplined with what we were doing. This is the way you want to playing at this point in time of the season."
Bonner shoots over an Arkansas defender.
Wrapping up what is sure to be SEC Player of the Year honors as well as All-American honors, Bonner was huge in her last home game as she finished with 25 points on 7-11 shooting and also made 10-11 free throws. Finishing the regular season with more than 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds, Bonner said the championship was something the team has worked hard for since they came together last summer.
"I knew we were going to be something special, but who knew we were going to win the SEC," Bonner said. "Every team is great every night. I am so proud of our seniors and I'm glad our team made it this far. I plan on Auburn winning it again next year."
With Bonner and Boddie hot early, the Tigers jumped out to a quick lead and never looked back, but it was the play of Hobbs in the first half that put Auburn over the top. With the game still relatively close at 16-9 Auburn, Hobbs hit a layup at the 14:57 mark that got the Tigers rolling.
Back to back baskets by the Huntsville senior at the eight minute mark pushed the lead out to 15. By the time the first half was done Hobbs had 16 points. She said while the offense gets the credit, it was the defense that set the tempo.
"I think we just clicked on all cylinders today," Hobbs said. "We wanted to come out today and have a good start. I think we did that. We were kind of sluggish in the second half, but we did everything we wanted to do. We wanted to stop their penetration and have good pressure on the ball."
The second half was barely more than an early celebration for Fortner's Tigers as the closest the game got was 17 when Arkansas' Ayana Brereton hit a three point basket with 18:04 left to cut the lead to 56-39. Auburn reeled off six-straight points to open things back to a 23 point advantage.
From there it was smooth sailing as Auburn stretched the lead to 36 points with just over a minute left on a basket from freshman Chantel Hilliard. Her basket with two seconds remaining was the final nail in what had already been a celebration for Fortner's club as the seniors were taken out and put back in with just over four minutes left.
Fortner and Auburn's seniors have a laugh following Sunday's win.
That set them up to come back out one last time to the approval of the crowd of 5,616. For Fortner that proved to be the toughest part of the day, looking at a group of seniors that have been with her all the way during her time at Auburn. Now they were SEC Champs.
"The most emotional thing for me today was that last timeout under the 4:00 mark at the end of the game," Fortner said. "I was just sitting there looking at all them. It was very emotional. That's where it became very overwhelming to me of exactly what was going on. We're going to win this game and these seniors are going to go out having done that. They accomplished what we set out to accomplish … in one area. Now it's on to the next."
Hobbs finished the day with 18 points while Boddie added 10 points, eight assists, and just one turnover. Jackson added seven points and 11 rebounds in her final game as a senior. Bonner said for her it was a fitting end to a great regular season for the seniors.
"When we started as freshmen we didn't win many games, and it kind of kept increasing," Bonner said. "Coach Fortner kept saying tell us to stick with it, stay with it. That's what we did. We kept working hard."
The next goal is the SEC Tournament title and a possible number one seed. The Tigers will face the winner of the 8/9 game between Arkansas and Ole Miss in the second round of the SEC Tournament in North Little Rock at noon on Friday, March 6. Boddie said right now that's the focus for this team, winning the tournament crown.
"It puts us in a good position because we're the No. 1 seed outright," Boddie said. "It's going to be competitive no matter who we play, but we're not really worried about the competition. We're just trying to take care of business. We have bigger things to come. This is good for right now, today we're going to celebrate and do it big, but after that, it's over. We've got bigger things ahead of us."
The Tigers and fans rolled snowy Toomer's Corner on Sunday evening.
With balloons falling, music playing, and players and coaches throwing championship T-shirts into the crowd, Auburn played its final game at Beard-Eaves on Sunday and made it count. For four very special players it was the last chance on a home court that has become a very tough place to win for opponents. Fortner said for her, Sunday was a time to sit back and enjoy the journey. It's a journey that's still not finished.
"They came in here with a brand new staff and got to know us," Fortner said. "They came to Auburn and they believed in what we were telling them. I'll always be thankful to them for doing that and for getting this program back to where it needs to be."