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MONDAY, DECEMBER 4, 2006
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No. 2 Pitt slows, but Auburn can’t catch up

By Bradley Handwerger
bhandwerger@decaturdaily.com · 340-2462

AUBURN — The chance was there for Auburn to steal a win against the country’s No. 2-ranked team.

Pittsburgh missed seven of its final nine free throw attempts in the final 1:31, but Auburn couldn’t take advantage, missing five shots in that same period to fall 74-66 to the Panthers in a boisterous Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum.

“It’d be nice to win one,” Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo said. “We’ve got to earn the right to win one. We’re close. We’re looking better. I see bright spots. We’ve got to get one of those. Puts some pep in your step.”

Auburn (6-3) is getting closer, however.

A year ago, the Tigers fell at Pitt 78-41 in a game that showed just how far they had to go toward knocking off a top team.

But already this year, Auburn has pushed Oklahoma State to within two points of a win and pushed No. 7 Wisconsin in the final minutes before falling 77-63.

“I’ve seen this team improve,” said Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon, whose team improved to 8-0. “I’ve seen Auburn get much better from last year to this year. I can see Coach Lebo having this thing going as these young guys get better and better.”

It didn’t help that Auburn was 3 of 20 from 3-point range. In fact, 40 of Auburn’s 66 points came in the paint, despite the Panthers outsizing Auburn with the presence of Aaron Gray (7-foot-0) and Levon Kendall (6-10).

A lot of that was because of Korvotney Barber and Josh Dollard, a pair of 6-7 inside players for the Tigers. Barber finished with 19 points, four rebounds and three blocks, while Dollard had had 14 points and 12 boards.

“Coach told us all week that (Gray) is a big body, but he’s slow,” Dollard said. “We tried to use our quickness to get around him and outwork him. That’s what we tried to do.”

Sunday’s game in front of 6,544 fans could have swayed Auburn’s way up until the final 35 seconds.

Down 14 with 10:43 left in the second half, Auburn battled back. It helped that Pittsburgh went cold from the floor, scoring only eight points over a nearly eight-minute stretch.

“We couldn’t get back to take the lead,” Lebo said. “A lot of times, the hardest thing is to get back and get the lead. To come all the way back and not get it, that’s hard.”

Bucket by bucket, Auburn chipped away, scoring on a Quantez Robertson layup, then a Rasheem Barrett 18-footer, a Barber free throw and layup, and a DeWayne Reed 3-pointer.

Suddenly, the score was 66-58 with 5˝ minutes to play.

Auburn’s run wasn’t over.

Dollard made a free throw, then Reed sank two of his own. And when Frank Tolbert’s layup banked through the rim with 2:03 on the clock, Auburn was down only three points at 66-63.

Pittsburgh’s Ronald Ramon hit a layup to push the lead back to five, but Tolbert and Dollard each hit 1 of 2 free throws to bring the deficit back down to three.

The Panthers’ double-digit lead, though, proved to be too much to overcome as Auburn went silent as quickly as it heated up.

When Pitt’s Gray, who finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds, put back a missed shot, it put Auburn down 70-65.

Tolbert missed a quick 3-pointer and Reed air-balled one of his own, but Auburn still had a chance because Pittsburgh couldn’t make a free throw, missing six straight.

But after Robertson made a free throw to pull back within four, Pittsburgh’s Lavance Fields broke a full-court press with 35 seconds remaining and converted a layup, all but ending Auburn’s hopes of a break-through win.

“It’s frustrating knowing that we could have beaten the No. 2-ranked team,” Barber said. “Like coach said, we made a few mistakes here and there and we just couldn’t beat them.”

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