"I went into this game to play real hard, and I came out real good," said Rhodes after the best all-around effort of his still-young college career. It might have been just his third game with double-digits in both points and boards, but it was at least twice as enjoyable for both Rhodes and a Bulldog team that after seven-straight SEC losses finally had something to celebrate. Even the home crowd of 6,335 got into the act, resurrecting the ‘wave' cheer once victory was assured.
"The difference in the game was we had a guy on the inside who was dominant, offensively and defensively," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "That's where it started for us."
Rhodes was definitely the dominating figure on-court. "We called Charles today a walking ‘double-double'," quipped freshman backup center Vernon Goodridge. "I said you had about 20 rebounds, he was like ‘stop playing!'" But the rookie was right, and had Rhodes not taken a seat with 91 seconds left on the clock he would have surely reached a score of rebounds—a true ‘20/20.'
Rhodes paid a price though. With 16 seconds left before halftime and State taking possession, Stansbury put him back on the court. The Dogs didn't score and at the Rhodes limped to the locker room with a turned left ankle. "They put like a cast on it, a lot of tape," he said. "When I took it off that's when I felt the pain." Rhodes came to the postgame interview wearing a protective boot.
But not before putting a lot more hurt on the Tigers. "Charles Rhodes was terrific," Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo said. "The real difference in the game was Rhodes. He played above everyone else in the game." Of course Rhodes should have, as the tallest starter on the court and working against the over-matched Tiger frontcourt. He finished with 8-of-13 shooting and made five-of-seven free throws to match his 21-point output of three days earlier; the 19 boards topped his 18-rebound night against Jacksonville State.
"He went and got every one of them," said Stansbury. Not entirely, as the other Bulldogs got 30 boards of their own while the whole Tiger team managed 33 rebounds. And there were a lot of caroms to recover as Rhodes was the only participant making more than half his attempts from the field. State shot just 42.9% while Auburn finished at 33.9%, and was a dismal 4-of-26 from the arc. Of Rhodes 19 rebounds 14 were on the defensive end.
While the Bulldogs ended up with a comfortable margin of victory, and were up by 22 points with 2:36 remaining, the game was essentially decided by a seven-minute stretch spanning the halftime break. State ended the first period with five unanswered points, then opened the second with a 10-0 run. Meanwhile Auburn went from 3:21 to 16:07 without producing a point.
"We weren't used to taking a lead into the locker room," junior guard Dietric Slater said. "We went in full of energy and came out still full of energy. Where we left off we started right back from."
The Bulldogs certainly didn't start well, missing their first five shots from the field with only a Rhodes free throw after seven possessions. Auburn's Rasheem Barrett stuck a pair of threeballs that had the Tigers in front, though neither side was able to build a real advantage. There were ten changes-of-lead in the first half, and State was 6-of-18 shooting at one point.
The Tigers got a three-point play from Korvotney Barber and free throws from Frank Tolbert to take their last lead, 22-21, at 5:53. Bulldog forward Jamont Gordon missed a long jumper for the re-lead but guard Jamall Edmondson was in the lane for the quick carom and 10-footer at 5:29. Rhodes cashed in three free throws and a breakneck drive by Slater made it a six-point difference as Auburn rushed and missed perimeter shots.
Up 33-26 to open the new half, Slater started the decisive surge with free throws and Gordon came back with a driving layup for a foul and thee-point play. When Rhodes put a rebound back in the bucket Auburn stopped the clock at 18:00 even, but the timeout didn't help because after missed consecutive trey-tries Edmondson stuck a two-point jumper for a 43-26 margin.
"We came out those first minute and extended (the lead)," said Stansbury, "that was huge for us. It allowed us to play with a lot of confidence and play loose. We're not used to playing ahead, for sure."
Auburn made one try at staying in the contest, cutting their deficit to 59-49 at 6:40 on a layup by Josh Dollard. Thirteen seconds later Rhodes scored over a double-team, got the foul and made the free throw. And after Auburn blew a breakaway layup Gordon finished a snowbird-slam that essentially served as the punctuation mark for State's win. For good measure Edmondson threw in a pair of theeballs that pushed the lead to 71-49 at 2:36.
Three more Bulldogs finished with double-digit points, as Gordon had 16—ten on free throws—while Edmondson added 13 and Slater 10. Gordon and Slater also had seven rebounds, and Gordon added seven assists along with two impressive blocks. The second swat also produced a technical foul as he told the luckless Tiger what to do with his shot.
Guard Ronny LeMelle led Auburn with 15 points while Barrett scored a dozen and Tolbert added 10 off the bench. "We missed shots," Lebo said. "You just have to make them when you're as small as we are. We didn't have an inside game." Thus the 26 trey-tries, as well as a frenetic pace of play as Auburn tried to shoot before State's defense could get set. It didn't work as the Bulldogs showed they could not only pound the glass but run the floor with the visitors.
"We figured we could be more aggressive with them and they wouldn't know how to handle it," Slater said.
Now the Bulldogs get to take a break, from competition at least, as they are open this midweek and don't play again until a trip next weekend to South Carolina. But to hear Rhodes, he would just as soon get back on the court even with the bum ankle. "This felt good tonight. I'd been stressing for the past month. Now that I got my win we just need to build from this."