"We were concerned about this game in a lot of ways," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "Where it was sandwiched, having this week off, maybe some people not realizing just how good Auburn is." The Tigers did give a good showing in a hostile setting, leading 37-31 at halftime and by seven early in the decisive second period. It didn't hold up once the Bulldog backcourt found the range.
"We knew the zone they ran, we were going to get a lot of shots," said Stewart. "We just had to knock ‘em down." The freshman guard did, hitting for three of his four treys and 17 of his game-best 22 points after the break. Reginald Delk also had three longballs in the last half, four total, and finished with 20 points. As things played out, the Bulldogs needed to be accurate from the arc to stay with the Tigers.
"They're a tough team," Reginald Delk said. "I think everybody on that team can shoot. We just kept knocking down the threes." State ended with nine treys in 25 tries, Auburn with 11 in 29.
"I thought the first half was played a little bit like we'd been off," said Stansbury. "We had some open shots and missed some open shots. But at halftime if we were going to keep getting those shots we were going to make some. We wanted to keep being aggressive."
Leading by six in the locker room, Auburn managed to stay in front for a few more minutes and even extend the margin a bit, to 45-38 on a three by Josh Dollard. That was as far ahead as the visitors got in the last half as Bulldog marksmen finally found the range. With Auburn zoning Delk nailed long shots at 19:18 and 17:51. After guard Dietric Slater hit a shorter jumper to get the Bulldogs with two points, Auburn's Dollard missed from the arc. So did Reginald shooting for a lead, but brother Richard got the loose rebound, bounced a blind pass to his twin and this time Reginald was on-target from the corner at 15:26.
"The second half we concentrated on knocking down our shots," he said. "It changed the game, they kept giving us open looks and we just kept knocking them down. It gave us more and more confidence we could win."
The Tigers hadn't lost their own confidence yet and briefly regained the lead 53-51 after consecutive State turnovers. But they apparently forgot about Stewart, who camped out alone in the left corner and made it count. "I was a little surprised. When I first got in they were keying-up on me, saying to stay with me. The second half I got open a lot." The freshman hit the go-ahead three at 11:40 and another at 10:55.
When guard Ben Hansbrough's attempt from the other wing missed guard Jamont Gordon rebounded and fed center Jarvis Varnado for a dunk and 61-55 score that had the Tigers calling for time. Play resumed with Dollard missing a jumper and Gordon muscling for a Bulldog basket. With the Tigers now covering the whole perimeter starting forward Charles Rhodes got loose and converted a couple of Hansbrough feeds into two-handed slams. By the four-minute mark State was in front 73-60.
"I think we had a pretty good performance," Stewart said. "We got some rebounds and hit some big shots."
Auburn didn't punch the clock just yet, and with Frank Barrett and Quan Prowell sticking long shots State's lead was hacked to 79-74 with 1:24 left to rally. And the ball. Tolbert's trey-try missed and Gordon drew a foul in transistion, converting both chances. When he fed Slater for a running slam at 0:43 the Bulldogs had their win.
"We were very positive at halftime," Stansbury said. "Because I felt there were some things we didn't do we knew we could do better. Just kept doing the things we wanted to do and be more aggressive, attack and pick it up defensively."
There was room for halftime improvement after Auburn shot 40% in the first period and matched the bigger Bulldogs on the boards. The Tigers were able to creep ahead before even hitting anything from long range; when DeWayne Reed and Kelvin Lewis did connect the Tigers went out in front as much as 33-24, and it would have been much more of a lead had the iron not been most unkind to the visitors. A half-dozen Auburn layups and short jumpers simply rolled the wrong way; had just half of those dropped the Bulldogs would have been in a much more serious situation.
Stansbury, who started two post players for tipoff, opted for a four-guard set after intermission with Slater taking the place of center Vernon Goodridge. "That was our best lineup offensively," he said. Because with Slater and Gordon forcing the pace against the 1-3-1 Tiger zone openings were left for Delk and Stewart, and both took full advantage.
"When people play a zone we realize we're not the best shooters," Slater said. "But nobody can stop us driving, unless we run somebody over! They were either going to stop us or stop them (the shooters)." In crunch time the Tigers could stop neither. Rhodes and Varnado each scored 13 points and Gordon had 11, along with 11 rebounds.
Dollard topped the Tigers with 19 points, Prowell added a dozen and both Rasheem Barrett and Korvotney Barber ten. Auburn was able to equal State on the glass at 44 rebounds each and profited from 19 offensive boards. The home team's margin of victory came, typically in SEC action, at the free throw line where the Dogs scored 22 points to Auburn's nine. State, the 11th-best (or worst) foul-shooting squad in the SEC was 22-of-26 this afternoon.
"We had the right people at that foul line," said Stansbury. "Stew was 10-of-10, that helps your percentage a lot."
So does playing on the home court, as in their last six SEC wins the Bulldogs have finished with double-digit margins. Not that they are counting on this sort of advantage in their next home outing, as State hosts #1-ranked Florida this Wednesday evening as part of a three-game home stand. But, the last two times a defending national champion has come to The Hump, State has spoiled the trip, against Kentucky in 1979 and Arkansas in 1995.