An impressive 66-53 victory over Tennessee on Friday night in the quarter-finals of the SEC Basketball Tournament should put the Tigers in The Big Dance on Selection Sunday. It also moved the Tigers into the semi-finals for a Saturday date with the hottest team in the country, the Kentucky Wildcats.
Auburn won the game with hustle, defense, strong inside scoring and more hustle.
"There shouldn't even be a question about whether or not we are getting in the NCAA," said Ellis, who added that he thought the Vols would make the field of 65, too.
Senior Derrick Bird said the Tigers came into the game with the attitude that they had work to do and put together an intense effort for 40 minutes to improve their record to 20-10. "We really played well together as a team," Bird said.
Sophomore forward Marco Killingsworth, who led all scorers with 17 points and tied for game high honors with Brandon Crump of UT in rebounds with 10, said the win was huge for the Tigers. "We came out to make a statement about the postseason and that is what we did."
Kyle Davis has his knee worked on during a second half timeout during Auburn's victory over Tennessee.
Ellis and his Tigers have a quick turnaround coming with a 2:15 p.m. semi-final game on Saturday against the Kentucky Wildcats, who ran over Vandy 81-63 on Friday. The Wildcats are 27-3 overall and 17-0 vs. SEC opponents. They beat Auburn 67-51 in Lexington on Jan. 22.
"We played with great energy," said senior forward Marquis Daniels, who scored 12 points for the Tigers as he played with a heavy wrap on his wrist. "One of the things we focused on was attacking them inside and that was a big key to our win. Marco, Brandon (Brandon Robinson), Kyle (Kyle Davis) and Donny (Donny Calton) played great post defense inside.
"Nathan Watson came off the bench and played a great game as well. He had a lot of rebounds (seven). Overall, I think it was one of our best games. We have to come out in the next game and play with the same energy if not even harder against Kentucky."
With more than 18,510 fans at the Louisiana Superdome watching, Auburn attacked the Vols early with an 11-0 run with the score tied at 6-6 and the Tigers never trailed after that. That was the biggest lead in the first half that ended with AU ahead 31-24.
The Tigers shot 48.3 percent in the half as they ran their offense well and got high percentage shots around the basket. "They took the ball inside and were very effective against us," said Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson, whose team fell to 17-11 on the season. He said Auburn played extremely well and his team didn't shoot well enough (36.7 percent) to win as Aubrn hit 44.8 percent.
Ellis said Auburn's team defensive pressure on UT was a key to the victory. Auburn forced 17 turnovers and had just 11 as point guard Lewis Monroe ran the show with 34 minutes and 27 seconds and had just one turnover to go with 10 points.
Robinson got Auburn's offense going in the first half with good inside play. In the second half, he drew the fifth foul on SEC Player of the Year Ron Slay with 5:07 to play and the Tigers on top 55-41. That severely damaged UT's hopes of a comeback. Slay scored 16 points and contributed nine rebounds in just under 30 minutes of action. Ellis said Slay scored many of his points even when Auburn had him defended well.
UT did have one late run left as the Vols cut the gap to 55-50 on a stuff by Elgrace Wilborn following a Daniels turnover. However, Killingsworth answered with an inside basket at the 2:17 mark. Monroe stretched the lead to nine as he raced to the basket for a layup. Auburn got the lead back to double figures at 1:22 as Monroe hit two free throws to make the score 61-50.
After that it was just a matter of how much the final margin would be as the Tigers headed back to their hotel for some sleep.