With 1 game left, Tigers could claim Western title
By Bradley Handwerger
AUBURN — Korvotney Barber stood from his chair to leave the Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum interview room Wednesday and left by asking a question of his own.
“Are we really playing for a championship?” Barber inquired.
When the assembled reporters answered yes, Barber shook his head.
The Tigers used a controlling 80-68 home victory over LSU to put themselves in position to at least tie for the SEC Western Division championship with one game to play.
But it took some help from arch-rival Alabama and Arkansas to get the Tigers (17-13, 7-8 SEC) in this position. Alabama beat Ole Miss, and Arkansas beat Mississippi State to throw the division into a jumble.
After losing four straight, Auburn has responded with three victories in a row, which place the Tigers in a tie for first with Mississippi State (16-12, 7-8), Ole Miss (18-11, 7-8) and Alabama (20-9, 7-8).
All four play each other this weekend, with the Tigers traveling to Ole Miss (1 p.m., WZDX-54) on Saturday and Alabama going to Mississippi State (1 p.m.) on Sunday.
The Tigers can’t finish any worse than third in the division. The first two spots will receive a bye through the first round of the SEC tournament.
“We were just going through some things when we were in that slump,” said Barber, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds against LSU.
“We got it back together and started to win with a three-game winning streak. A tie for first sounds real good compared to where we started at.”
On Wednesday, the Tigers continued their march forward in one of the unlikeliest of scenarios against LSU (15-14, 4-11).
In three years as Auburn’s head coach, Jeff Lebo had not guided a team to three straight conference wins.
He still hasn’t. After the Tigers defeated Arkansas and Alabama in the previous two games, Lebo missed the Tigers’ win over LSU with a stomach virus, leaving assistant coach John Cooper in charge.
“I got a text message from (assistant) Dave Lebo at 1 or 1:30 p.m.,” Cooper said. “I did not know he was not going to be here until I got into the office around 5.”
Whatever Cooper did worked.
Auburn had the fewest turnovers of the season at nine, and the win tied the school record for home wins in a season at 15. It also secured a winning regular season record for the Tigers.
Auburn led for the final 16:08 of the game, and broke it open using a 23-6 run midway through the second half.
Six different Auburn players scored in that stretch.
Freshman guard DeWayne Reed started the run with a layup, cutting an LSU lead to 42-41. His 3-pointer from straight away ended it, giving Auburn its biggest lead of the game at 14.
Reed finished with 12 points and six assists.
“We had a stretch there where they made plays and made shots and we didn’t,” LSU head coach John Brady said. “I’m not saying we didn’t have opportunities because we did.”
Auburn’s lead never dropped to fewer than nine points the rest of the way.
Though LSU outrebounded Auburn 38-30, the Bayou Bengals missed 6-foot-9 senior Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who missed his third straight game with a right quadriceps muscle injury.
Davis ranks third in the conference with 18 points a game.
But Auburn’s Barber and Josh Dollard took advantage, using their quickness to keep the Tigers in front. Dollard finished with 16 points and six rebounds.
More importantly, the Tigers shot 50 percent from the game, including 53.8 percent in the second half.
“I think they ran a little more,” Barber said. “But his presence, it was lost on the inside. He’s a big guy to hold. He’s tough. (Darnell) Lazare is tough, but he’s not Big Baby. It was real different not having Big Baby”
Qaun Prowell added 11 points for Auburn, while Tasmin Mitchell led LSU with 24 points and Garrett Temple had 13.
In the end, maybe it was just some words from Cooper that ended up pushing Auburn through to the win.
“I told all these guys before, and even in a timeout, you can’t be afraid of success,” Cooper said. “I didn’t think we had enough energy early in the second half, you have to go out and grab. The same can be said of a championship.”
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