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Josh Dollard (3) and the Auburn Tigers will play Georgia in the first round of the SEC men's basketball tournament in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Thursday. Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m. The game will be televised on WAMY-TV.
AP photo by Michael E. Palmer
Josh Dollard (3) and the Auburn Tigers will play Georgia in the first round of the SEC men's basketball tournament in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Thursday. Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m. The game will be televised on WAMY-TV.

Georgia, Atlanta await Auburn
Tigers regrouping as league tourney arrives

By Bradley Handwerger
bhandwerger@decaturdaily.com 340-2462

Five days normally is enough time to move on from a loss.

But for Auburn, five days might not fit that bill.

The Tigers (17-14, 7-9 SEC) are coming off their toughest defeat in three years, losing by four points at Ole Miss in the most important game during that time.

Now they must regroup, a task for a team that's never been in this position. It won't be easy.

It's not just that Auburn opens the SEC tournament Thursday at 6:30 p.m. against Georgia (17-12, 8-8), a team that beat the Tigers once this season and led by 21 at one point in that game.

No, it's that Auburn opens against Georgia in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, a task comparable to opening against Vanderbilt a year ago in the SEC tournament, which was in Nashville.

Auburn lost that game 76-71.

"Last year, we ended up losing by (five) but led a lot of that game," Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo said. "You want to have your team playing the best at the end, and I think we are. Hopefully we can continue that in the tournament."

Oh, the reward for whichever team wins this game? Eastern Division No. 1-seed Florida.

Regardless of the second-round opponent, for Auburn, Thursday's game will be the first time the Tigers will hit the court since losing a chance to be Western Division co-champions.

For a young team never previously in that position, the loss was tough.

"Everybody was down about that game, including the coaching staff," Auburn forward Quan Prowell said. "(We) had it in our hands, and it slipped away. I was very down about the game."

Added Lebo, "I worry about the emotion of the Ole Miss game and the disappointment of that game staying with the young kids too long."

In many ways, Thursday's game might just be the right antidote for the Tigers.

The last time Auburn played Georgia, the Bulldogs took an 86-79 win over the Tigers in Athens, Ga., on Feb. 17.

It was in that game that Auburn began to find its identity.

The Tigers trailed by 21 points with more than seven minutes to play, and yet they trimmed the deficit to six with 16 seconds left.

But fouls didn't help Auburn in that contest. The Tigers had five players foul out, including four starters, and the two teams combined to take 70 foul shots.

"Georgia is still fresh in our minds," Lebo said.

"We didn't play them that long ago. We spent a lot of time, both teams, on the foul line. Each time we play Georgia, seems like it's an aggressive game."

This is a different Auburn team, though. Since that game, Auburn is 3-1, including a three-game win streak. Instead of starting Rasheem Barrett, Lebo has chosen to start true freshman DeWayne Reed and bring Barrett in off the bench.

It's worked. Reed is averaging 8.2 points and 3.4 assists per game since entering the starting lineup.

Reed came off the bench in the regular season game against Georgia to score 13 points.

But the biggest difference in this team is that Quan Prowell has taken over.

Against Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi State, Prowell average only 4.3 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.

In the three games since that stretch, Prowell is averaging 18 points on 70 percent shooting and 4.3 rebounds per game. He scored a career-high 26 points against Ole Miss.

Prowell, though, isn't looking for individual accomplishments.

His only goal now is to get Auburn to the second round.

"We've got a lot of basketball left," Prowell said. "Everybody is looking forward to the tournament."

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