Killingsworth had a tremendous offensive night with 18 points as he made 9-11 shots to lead Auburn to a 62-59 hard-fought basketball victory in the SEC opener for both teams. Auburn tried four different defenders on Thornton, but nobody could consistently shut down the 6-8, 255-pound power forward. He finished the night with 23 points as he hit 10 of 14 baskets.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said, "We didn't do a good enough job defensively in the second half. They were able to get the ball into Killingsworth and we were able to do the same thing with Thornton. It was just a matter of who could do it the longest. Killingsworth got a huge offensive rebound off a free throw that hurt us."
On that play, center Kyle Davis missed the front end of a 1-1 with the Tigers down by three. Killingsworth got the putback basket to cut the gap to 56-55 Vandy, but the momentum switched to the Tigers with that play.
Brandon Robinson was a big factor in the Auburn victory, his first appearance of the season.
Vandy then got the ball to Thornton, who missed a short shot under defensive pressure, one of just four misses on the night. The Tigers pushed the ball up court and point guard Lewis Monroe drilled a three-pointer from the wing to put Auburn up 58-56 with 2:42 to play. Stallings said that sequence was the turning point. "We get the ball and Thornton misses at point blank range when we were up one and then a 25 percent three-point shooter makes a three. When the guy who is shooting 60 percent for you misses from a foot and a guy who is shooting 20 for them makes it from three, then it is apparently not meant to be."
The game was also notable for the return of Auburn sophomore forward Brandon Robinson to the lineup. He contributed on both ends of the court. He finished with eight points, four rebounds and one blocked shot in 18 minutes. His defense helped limit Vandy star Matt Freije to 10 points on 3-12 field goal shooting. Freije scored a career-high 29 points vs. the Tigers last year in Nashville as Vandy won 73-67.
"They made a few more plays than we did," Stallings said. "They deserved to win." The Vandy coach added, "I think the fact that they are leading the country in field goal percentage is an indication that they are better. We have not had anybody shoot 50 percent against us. We had one team shoot 50 percent in a half against us this year, and I think 42 percent was the best we had given up and they were able to shoot 50 percent on us for the game. They are deeper. It seems like they are better and it looks like they are getting good leadership."
Senior Marquis Daniels scores on a steal and a spectacular reverse stuff.
Auburn got 10 points from senior guard Derrick Bird, who did all of his scoring in the first half as the Tigers took a 28-23 lead at the break in a defensive struggle. The Tigers led much of the period, although the lead changed hands five times despite Vandy making just 29 percent of its first half shots to 48 percent for the Tigers.
For the game the shooting statistics loomed big. Auburn drilled 50 percent of its shots while Vandy made 37.1 percent from the field. Auburn's 10 blocked shots were huge, with Davis getting seven of them himself.
Vandy did a stellar job on Auburn's leading scorer, Marquis Daniels, who finished the night with 11 points on 3-8 shooting from the field.
Auburn stretched the lead to seven early in the second half, but Vandy took charge by attacking the Tigers with Thornton and his big body. Killingsworth, Robinson, Davis and Rodney Tucker all took their turns trying to slow him down, however, with limited success. Thornton scored 14 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half to take the Commodores to a four-point lead. The Commodores led by five with 8:19 left before the Tigers scored six straight points to take a brief lead on Killingsworth tip-in of a missed shot by Bird. That put the Tigers up 51-50 at the 6:02 mark.
The game was close the rest of the way. After Auburn took the lead the visitors tied the game at 59-59 on a pair of free throws on a questionable foul whistled on Daniels. However, Monroe put the Tigers ahead for good this time with a layup on a nice feed from Davis to make the score 61-59 with 1:12 left. That gave the sophomore point guard nine points for the game.
The lead moved to three with 25.3 seconds left when Daniels hit the first of two free throws. However, that ended the scoring as the Commodores couldn't get a good look at the basket. Freije missed a wild three-pointer with Robinson in his face. The 6-8 forward said he specifically asked Ellis to put him back in the game in the final minute to guard Vandy's star.
"I told him to put me on Freije," Robinson said. "Freije is a good player. He is all-conference, but I knew in my heart I could stop him. I had to go for it (Freije's three-pointer)...There ain't going to be no freebies in that situation."
After the Freije's miss bounced long off the rim, point guard Russell Lakey had just enough time to launch a wild, off-balance three that could have sent the game into overtime, but the shot wasn't close.
Auburn outrebounded the Commodores 34-33 and had 16 turnovers, five more than Vandy. The Tigers hit just 6-12 free throws while Vandy made 8-10. Auburn hit 4-16 threes and Vandy made 5-21.
"It was very important to win this game," Robinson said. "Our conference is going to be tremendously hard. For us to come out and win against a good team like Vanderbilt, which defeated us last year at their place, is going to be a big key going on down late in the SEC."
The Tigers return to action on Saturday as they make the long road trip to face the Arkansas Razorbacks. "It is going to be tough,"Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. "This team isn't going to have any easy games in this league." The Razorbacks, 5-7, opened the season with a 61-51 road loss to Alabama. Auburn improved to 12-2 overall with the victory while Vanderbilt fell to 7-5.