Auburn had too much defense, too much solid offensive execution, too much teamwork and too many points for the Alabama Crimson Tide to deal with on Saturday at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum as Auburn took a hard-fought 77-68 SEC basketball victory.
Auburn's defense limited the visitors to just 39.7 percent shooting and the Tigers forced 17 Tide turnovers while committing just nine themselves, much to the delight of an overflow, standing room only crowd that had plenty to cheer about as Auburn improved to 4-0 in the SEC and 15-2 overall.
"You can close the book on whether or not this basketball team is any good or not," Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis said. "If you have got eyes and been watching it--that is over. Now we have to focus on playing one game at a time. There are going to be some tough ones.
"Are we a great team?," Ellis added. "Maybe they can show that. We still have got some youth that I still think has got some growing up to do before we label them that. They beat a ranked team today and they beat a team that was No. 1 in the country and that team, Alabama, deserved that and they earned that right. Mark (Gottfried) has done a great job with this team. He is a great coach and he has very good players and they are not going to go away, I can tell you that, but Auburn is here. Don't deny them that."
Auburn used a balanced scoring attack with four players contributing 13 points and two more adding nine. The lack of turnovers was big for Auburn as was strong play on the backboards in the second half and strong defense for 40 minutes.
Starters Marquis Daniels, Marco Killingsworth and Derrick Bird scored 13 apiece while Brandon Robinson added 13 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and one steal in 26 strong minutes off the bench. Lewis Monroe added nine points and had four assists with just three turnovers. Nathan Watson scored nine points in 20 minutes of action off the bench.
"Auburn is the story," Gottfried said. "They are good. They are a legitimately good team and they are playing with a tremendous amount of confidence and making shots. Defensively, they're as good as anybody we have played this year and I think we have played some pretty good teams."
Derrick Bird plays defense on Tide star guard Maurice Williams, who scored 16 points.
The Tide dropped to 2-2 in the league and 12-3 overall despite an impressive offensive performance from junior forward Emmett Thomas, who single-handedly kept the Tide in the game in the first half with 15 of Alabama's 29 points as Auburn took a 37-29 lead into intermission. The former John Carroll High player, who grew up as an Auburn fan but wasn't offered a scholarship by Auburn, led all scorers with 20 points as he hit 3-5 three pointers.
Ellis said that Auburn knew that Thomas was a good small forward, but said the Tigers didn't sign him because Daniels was the man they wanted for that position. Daniels ended the game early for Thomas by fouling out the Tide forward with 5:38 to play on a one-on-one move to the basket. Daniels got the bucket, but missed the free throw to leave Auburn ahead by a 64-51 margin. That was one shy of Auburn's largest lead.
The Tigers still led by the same margin with 1:20 to play at 72-59 as Monroe hit one of two foul shots. Alabama managed to cut the gap to 74-68 on a rebound basket by Erwin Dudley with 21.4 seconds left. However, Auburn's defense clamped down and forced a turnover. Killingsworth's dunk with five seconds left on a rebound pass off the backboard from Daniels was a spectacular ending to the victory for the Tigers.
Marco Killingsworth's end of the game dunk put an exclamation point on the victory.
Auburn hit 46.4 percent from the field. The Tigers blocked seven shots and had nine steals. Kyle Davis blocked four shots and made it tough for the Tide to score inside. Six different Auburn players made steals.
Bama shot 39.7 percent, blocked two shots and made four steals. Auburn committed just nine turnovers and having eight fewer than the Tide was big. "Obviously, today we turned the ball over too many times, but I think you have to go give Auburn credit," Gottfried said. "You look around the country and look at those teams that we have played and some of them are ranked very, very high. They are every bit as good and better than most of them."
Senior power forward Erwin Dudley scored 17 points and added nine rebounds for Bama, but he also turned the ball over six times as Auburn doubled him in the post. The attention on Dudley gave Thomas and forward Kennedy Winston lots of shot opportunities on the wings. Thomas hit 8-11, but Winston made just 2-11.
The Tigers have now won seven straight home games vs. the Tide and nine straight this season. Auburn wasted no time in keeping the streaks alive. Two Killingsworth baskets inside, a Bird baseline jumper and a fast break basket by Bird staked the Tigers to a quick 8-0 edge.
After a timeout the Tide regained its composure and took a brief lead at 14-13 at the 11:19 mark. A three-pointer from the corner by Watson put the Tigers ahead 20-18 at the 8:22 mark of the half and Auburn never trailed after that.
The Tigers built the lead into double figures at the 14:29 mark of the second half as Robinson rebounded a Daniels missed shot to put the Tigers ahead 47-37. The margin reached 14 at the 6:16 mark as Daniels nailed both ends of a one and one. Free throw shooting was the only area that Auburn struggled with in the game. The Tigers hit 21-32 shots compared to 15-19 for the Tide team that was intentionally fouling the Tigers down the stretch during its desperation comeback bid.
The victory was the first for an Auburn team over a Top 10 opponent since beating No. 4 Arkansas 104-90 in 1995 and it gives the Tigers a two-game lead in the SEC West.
"Coach talked about defending and rebounding were the main key against Alabama," Bird said. "We wanted to come out and jump on them early and we did a good job of doing that. Everybody played a great defensive game and we rebounded well. This is a great team win."
Tiger Ticket Extra: Referee Mike Wood suffered a leg injury in the second half while running down the court and rolled into Auburn's Ellis on the Auburn bench. The Auburn coach said he was afraid at first that Wood had a heart attack. However, although it was a serious injury with a torn muscle, it wasn't life-threatening and the two teams continued the game with two officials--Gary Maxwell and Ray Natili--calling the action.