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Auburn head basketball coach Jeff Lebo got his first win over a ranked team Wednesday when Auburn defeated Tennessee 83-80. The win has sparked a renewed interest in the school's basketball program.
AP file photo by Tim Mueller
Auburn head basketball coach Jeff Lebo got his first win over a ranked team Wednesday when Auburn defeated Tennessee 83-80. The win has sparked a renewed interest in the school's basketball program.

AU looks legitimate
Win over ranked Tennessee makes Tigers an overnight sensation

By Bradley Handwerger
bhandwerger@decaturdaily.com 340-2462

You can say it was the weight of the world sitting on the shoulders and back of Auburn basketball coach Jeff Lebo.

In 14 tries, Lebo the head coach couldn't quite do something Lebo the player could.

Specifically, earn a win over an opponent ranked in the top 25 at the time of the game.

Not at Tennessee Tech. Not at UT-Chattanooga. And certainly not at Auburn.

Yes, Lebo was a modern day Atlas, apparently punished by the basketball gods to bear the weight of the heavens and the earth on his back.

After Wednesday night's 83-80 comeback win over No. 22 Tennessee, Lebo is Atlas no more.

The weight is no longer there.

"It's big to finally get one, for the kids, for the coaches," said Lebo, whose team improved to 12-7 and 2-2 in the SEC. "To win a game and the way we did it, coming from behind, was big."

And that might qualify as an understatement from a guy who went 23-14 against ranked opponents as a player at North Carolina from 1985-89.

Fourteen times a Lebo-coached team had a chance to beat a top 25
opponent. Fourteen times those teams went down, by a 14.7 margin of defeat, no less.

Twice his teams were within a made 3-pointer of winning the game, one coming in an 89-87 Auburn loss to No. 24 Virginia on Dec. 3, 2004, the other a week ago when the Tigers fell to No. 13 LSU 65-63.

"You got to realize we haven't had a lot of chances," Lebo said.

"We really weren't competing on the same playing field for a little while there, we were so in a hole."

Now, heading into a game at Mississippi State (10-6, 1-2) at a facility well known as The Hump, Auburn finally has crested the proverbial hump.

All of a sudden, Lebo's team, long thought to be one of the lower tier teams in the rough and tough SEC, is a half-game behind Western Division leader LSU.

The win ushered in a sudden, even
if brief, resurgence of Auburn basketball.

"After watching some of the (Wednesday's) game, you can see how confident they've been playing," said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, whose Wildcats defeated Auburn 84-57 on Jan. 10.

"They really have some talent, and now that talent is starting to believe in what they're doing. Trusting the system. Trusting the coaches.

"They've probably made the biggest turnaround of anybody in the league."

Smith, as well as Lebo and Rick Stansbury, Mississippi State's head coach, all said a win like Auburn's over Tennessee can jumpstart the team into the rest of the season. If anything, that kind of win grabs the attention of the players.

"You prepare the same way, but it puts a little extra step in your kids' walk," Stansbury said. "Everything about preparing becomes better and easier."

Added Lebo: "It gives your kids a little confidence. Helps your practice. Helps your body language. Helps their listening skills. It just helps when you win a game like that."

But it does make it easier for an opposing coach to prepare, Smith said.

"You've got to make sure your team doesn't have a letdown and that your team understands that this team is going to play harder and better than they were before that accomplishment," Smith said.

Lebo's task isn't easy. Auburn's next game comes at a place the Tigers have lost by an average of 27.5 points in their past two trips.

"Winning on the road period, in any league, is hard," Lebo said. "It's tough. That's why the home court is so big in NBA playoffs when you play a series. Percentages are in your favor."

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