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Hoops Report: Unchartered Territory

The lowest of lows.

The Auburn Tigers found themselves in an strange position Wednesday night. An unfamiliar and exotic environment. One they weren’t prepared for.

It wasn’t the location — Coleman Coliseum — that unsettled them. And it wasn’t their opponents — the team, the fans, the referees, the world — that led to their last second undoing. Instead, the strange circumstances in which they seemed so desperately lost and confused, were brought upon them by themselves.

They were in the lead.

At least they were for most of the contest. The Tigers led Alabama by as many as 15 in the first half. It wasn’t until there were three minutes left in the game that Alabama retook the lead, and it wasn’t until the final second that the Tide took the deciding advantage.

For Bama, the story of the game was a brave comeback, and the heroics of their star, whose tip-in with 0.3 remaining on the game clock sent the home crowd into a frenzy. But for Auburn, the story was of a gut-wrenching loss, and a somber bus ride back to the Plains surely haunted missed opportunity.

The reason? Once the Tigers had the lead, they just didn’t seem to know what to do with it, and proved once again that they just haven’t learned to tap into the game’s most important intangible: winning. Tony Barbee said as much, blaming himself in his post game press conference.

“This loss is on me because I did an awful job of teaching these guys how to win,” Barbee said. “Because that’s a game, even in this environment and as bad as we played, we’ve got to figure out a way to win. And we lost it, so that’s on me.”

That sounds like cookie-cutter coachspeak, but Barbee may have actually discovered something that needs fixing in his coaching Wednesday night, as Auburn’s clock-killing offense down the stretch was even more anemic than usual. In the final seven minutes of the game, Auburn mustered only two field goals, both mid-key floaters from Tony Neysmith, the last of which tied the game with 13 seconds remaining. During the scoring drought, the Tigers not only didn’t make buckets, they hardly got any decent looks at the end of the shot clock.

Meanwhile, they continued to foul out of the game down the stretch. First it was Rob Chubb, then it was E.J. Ross, then Kenny Gabriel, then Adrian Forbes, until finally there was no one left to box out JaMychal Green at the end of the game. Auburn’s big men watched from the bench as Green sank their hopes with a last-second tip-in.

Ross led the way, and was the only Tiger in double digits with 10. Gabriel and Forbes both added 7, and Tony Neysmith, who has been lately struggling (even notching a couple DNP-CD’s), scored 6 and clocked 18 minutes to get himself back on track.

If there is anything that the 2010-2011 basketball season has taught us, it’s that the only thing to do after a gut-wrenching loss is to pick yourself up and try to go get it next time. The Tigers return home Saturday against Arkansas in an early afternoon contest (12:45 tip at Auburn Arena). It’s the next to last home game of the season. Hopefully they can start a run to end the year on a high note.

A few other, bulleted, thoughts:

– I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’m really not. But the 29 to 18 foul count in Wednesday’s game speaks for itself. I’m starting to believe that a 96-team NCAA tournament would be a good thing, if it meant the conference would stop selling out the competition it lives on for some precious — and undeserved — extra tournament berth. But that’s all I want to say on the subject.

– When it comes to Auburn playing in ridiculously low-scoring and defensive games, once may be by happenstance, but after seeing several of these games this year, including against Florida State, Florida, and now Alabama, I refuse to believe that those performances are any longer something to be scoffed at or mocked. Couple those games with the suffocating defense we’ve seen Auburn play in stretches against Mississippi State and Georgia, and it’s pretty obvious that the defensive brand of basketball that Tony Barbee has installed this season has been shining through, even without a large defensive presence low to stop scoring inside or limit the other team from getting to the foul line. Add in some more scoring talent on offense, and I don’t think there will be any shortage of good coaching on Barbee’s part in the future. But we’ll talk about the future when it gets here.

– A special shoutout to our lovely lady hoopsters, who yesterday upset #22 Georgia, 63-58. Senior Alli Smalley led the way with 22 points, in the Tigers’ first win over a ranked team this season. It was so much fun, they’ll try to do it again on Sunday, in the final game of the season against #20 Kentucky, at home in Auburn Arena.

Photo via.

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