The Auburn Tigers used a balanced effort and solid second-half play to win their SEC opener, 68-63, over LSU Wednesday night at Auburn Arena.
The victory was Auburn's (7-7, 1-0 SEC) first win in a conference opener since defeating Vanderbilt, 68-65, on Jan. 6, 2007. To give you an idea of how long ago that was, Tony Barbee was in his first season at UTEP, and Auburn still had three and a half more seasons at Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum.
LSU dropped to 9-3 overall and 0-1 in SEC play.
Without two key contributors, Chris Denson and Jordan Price, due to injury, Auburn received offensive contributions from everyone on the court. Allen Payne led the Tigers with 15 points, and everyone scored at least five. Payne played well for the third consecutive game, making 7-of-12 shots and adding four rebounds, four assists and a three. Freshman Shaquille Johnson had what was easily his best game of the year, compiling 11 points, nine rebounds -- including three on the offensive end -- three assists, one block and one three.
It's hard to tell what was more impressive Wednesday night: the fact that Auburn won without a ton of help from Frankie Sullivan -- 10 points on just 3-of-10 shooting -- or that LSU came out of the locker room hot, and Auburn bounced back anyway. The Bayou Bengals led, 28-27, at the half, and they quickly stretched that lead to 33-27. Instead of folding, Auburn stayed in the game and eventually went on a 16-3 run that gave the orange-and-blue Tigers the lead for good. During the run, Auburn hounded LSU on defense, picking up three steals and a block. So even though the good Tigers only outrebounded the bad Tigers, 7-6, during that stretch, they earned extra possessions and limited open looks for LSU by playing great defense. Auburn is not yet great on the offensive end, so the formula for wins will have to come down to a high level of play on defense. Wednesday's win proved that.
Charles Carmouche scored 11 points in the final 1:01 to make the score closer than the game really was. He led LSU with 15 points, seven assists, six rebounds and one steal, and he was 4-of-11 from behind the three-point arc, including 3-of-3 in the final minute. Anthony Hickey had 13 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals, and Andre Stringer pitched in with 13 points, three three-pointers, a rebound and a steal.
One nit to pick: LSU pulled down 14 offensive rebounds, compared to six for Auburn. Those 14 offensive boards led to 15 second-chance points for the bad Tigers, while the good Tigers scored six. Auburn isn't going to be able to pick up consistent wins in SEC play if it's dominated on the offensive glass like that. Everyone, especially Rob Chubb and Asauhn Dixon-Tatum, needs to pick up the intensity when an opposing player puts a shot in the air.
One more nit to pick: Free throws. Auburn has been a little better from the line this year, and the Tigers were decent for most of the way against LSU. But in the final minutes when trying to kill off the game, they struggled and finished the night 12-of-22. Just like it must limit opposing offensive rebounds, Auburn has to make its free throws to keep winning SEC games.
Don't look now, but Auburn is actually playing pretty well. After a two-point loss to No. 12 Illinois at Chicago's United Center, the Tigers have won two straight games against real teams. With the way the rest of the SEC is playing, Auburn could string together a few wins with its next six games against South Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Georgia. A victory over the Wildcats may be a tall order, but the rest of those game are all winnable. It may be too greedy to ask for a 6-1 SEC record going into the game at Missouri on Feb. 2, but it isn't inconceivable.
The Tigers will have a chance to continue their winning ways and prove they're really on the right track Saturday at South Carolina. The Gamecocks have a 10-4 record, but that has been inflated by an awful schedule, and Carolina lost its SEC opener at a bad Mississippi State team. Auburn is better than this Gamecock team, but the Tigers have struggled mightily on the road in recent years -- 4-27 away from home under Barbee; woof. So even though Carolina doesn't look like a good team, a win in an opponent's building would be a step forward.
As if we didn't have enough early games during football season, Auburn and South Carolina tip off Saturday at 12:30 p.m. The game will be televised on the SEC Network and broadcast on the Auburn Sports Network.