AP photo by Todd J. Van Emst|
Auburn's Lucas Hargrove celebrates with fans after Auburn beat No. 22-ranked Tennessee.
Upstart Tigers knock off
No. 22-ranked Tennessee
By Bradley Handwerger
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AUBURN — Toomer's Corner is white this morning.
And while it's certainly cold enough for snow showers, this whiteout had more to do with a huge win in Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum than Mother Nature.
For the first time in the Jeff Lebo era, Auburn defeated a ranked team when the Tigers took down No. 22 Tennessee 83-80 in front of a boisterous 8,271 fans.
"Great win for the kids," said Lebo, the Tigers' third-year head coach. "I have been promising for a year and a half, as soon as we got one (against a ranked team), that we'd roll Toomer's. So we'll be out there tonight. Rain, snow. Whatever."
Tennessee (13-5, 1-2 SEC) left town with its third straight loss, a first in the two-year tenure of Bruce Pearl.
"You lose a few games and certainly it rattles you a little bit," Pearl said. "But we've been there. This was a game we thought if we played well, we could come in here and win."
That the Tigers (12-7, 2-2) won is crazy enough — Auburn previously had lost 15 straight against ranked teams, dating to a February 2004 win over No. 24 LSU. But it's how the Tigers secured the victory that's craziest of all.
Overcoming a 14-point second-half deficit and sinking free throws (20 of 28) isn't exactly something Auburn is known for. In fact, heading into the game, Auburn ranked last in the SEC in free throw percentage (58.8 percent).
"We work on free throws every day," said junior guard Frank Tolbert, who finished with a game-high 24 points.
"It's good to see it paying off at the end of the game when we really needed the win."
Tennessee built its large lead as Auburn went cold for the first 10 minutes of the second half, building to a 66-52 advantage with 9:43 to play on Dane Bradshaw's layup.
But Auburn answered when Tolbert hit a layup and was fouled. He missed the free throw, but something clicked.
The Vols didn't hit another shot until Chris Lofton, the team's leading scorer who finished with 22 points, converted a layup with 3:03 to go.
"When we had the lead, our shot selection was bad," Pearl said. "We obviously didn't get stops. As far as losing the game, I think we lost it related to our shot selection. I thought we kind of panicked offensively instead of executing our stuff.
By then, the Tigers had rallied and took a 74-66 lead before Lofton's layup.
Auburn grabbed the lead shortly after Bradshaw tried to throw the ball off Auburn's Josh Dollard while falling out of bounds. However, Dollard jumped over the pass, which went into Quan Prowell's hands. Prowell lofted a trey, which went in the basket and gave Auburn a 69-66 lead.
Auburn finally did what Lebo has preached all year — slow the ball down, wait for the perfect shot, don't panic.
"When we started getting down, we were rushing our shots," Tolbert said. "When we made our little run to get back into the game, we slowed it down and got it inside and started putting points on the board."
But Auburn didn't have this one in the bag yet.
Auburn's lead, up to six with 2:23 left, crashed back to three with a minute to play on a Bradshaw layup.
On the other end of the floor, Auburn missed two shots, and on the third rebound, Tolbert and Bradshaw each clutched the ball. Tolbert called timeout and received it, and Pearl turned livid.
He took his jacket off. His face turned red. And eventually, referee Tom Lopes rewarded him with a technical foul.
"At the end, specifically, it was a 50-50 ball," Pearl said. "You have to have possession to get to get a timeout. Everybody was tied up. Everybody was holding the ball."
Prowell, who finished with 21 points, hit both free throws. He then hit two more after drawing a foul with 19.7 seconds left, giving Auburn an 82-75 lead.
"I think this is as big a win as we have had since I have been here," Tolbert said. "It just felt so good to go out and celebrate with our crowd. They helped us a lot."
And now Auburn finds itself a half-game behind LSU for first place in the SEC West.
"The team finally found a way to get over the hump," Lebo said. "We were hoping that this day would come sooner or later. Finally, we got there."
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