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Hoops Report: Mele Kalikimaka

"Mele Kalikimaka is Kenny Gabriel's way to say Merry Christmas A very Merry Christmas, a very, very, Merry, Merry Christmas to you..."

Auburn fans who stayed up late Thursday night and into early Friday morning to see their Tigers compete in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic were treated to a thrilling game and a 65-62 victory over the home standing Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.

Things seemed all but lost for the Tigers when they faced their first deficit of the game with under nine seconds to play. Having never trailed, a series of turnovers, a back-court violation, and missed free throw opportunities led to a Hawaii bucket that gave the Rainbow Warriors a 62-61 lead and seemingly sunk the Tigers’ chances. But in Auburn’s final, desperation possession, Varez Ward ran the length of the court before cutting the basket, drawing defenders, and dishing to Rob Chubb for an emphatic go-ahead slam. A steal on the ensuing inbounds pass and two Chris Denson free throws later, the Tigers escaped with victory.

The win is Auburn’s first away from Auburn Arena, and brings the their overall record to 8-1. But more importantly in the context of this season, the win means that these Tigers won’t be returning from Hawaii and this pivotal tournament series completely empty handed. They’ll have invaluable experience and confidence in close game situations moving forward.

Auburn certainly could have won the game more convincingly, especially for only having trailed for six or so seconds in the entire game, and for having led at times throughout by as many as 11. But Auburn faced adversity the whole night, with each of its big men battling foul trouble right from tip off. The Tigers were constantly at a disadvantage, getting calls and getting to the free throw line. With just 43 seconds to play, Hawaii had attempted 22 free throws from the line, while Auburn had attempted just 5.

Moreover, Auburn was matched up against the tournament hosts, on their own court and in front of their own fans. When you consider jet lag and all of the other outside factors surrounding this game, it’s no wonder that the Rainbow Warriors were able to hang around. Consider them again, and you realize that the Tigers were very fortunate to come away with a hard-fought victory.

The trio Frankie Sullivan, Kenny Gabriel, and Rob Chubb led the way for the Tigers. Sullivan led the team with 17 points and pulled down 7 rebounds, while Gabriel scored 13 and brought down 9 boards. But the hero of the day was Chubb, who scored 14 points in the game, with 10 in the second half alone, including the go-ahead jam with 3.9 seconds to play.

With the win, Auburn advances to the semifinals of the tournament, and will play their second of three games in three days tonight against Long Beach State at 10 p.m. CST on ESPN2.

Long Beach State topped a depleted Xavier team— still without four of its players, suspended after the brawl that took place in their game against Cincinatti—to earn their spot in tonight’s matchup against Auburn. The winner/loser of this semifinal will take on the winner/loser from the opposite semifinal, between Kansas State and UTEP, on the third and final day of the tournament.

The Long Beach State 49ers aren’t a joke; their convincing win over Xavier have proven themselves to (so far) be the second best team in this tournament behind Kansas State.

The 49ers have 5 losses on the season, but most of those have come against high-quality competition, like No. 4 Louisville, No. 5 North Carolina, No. 12 Kansas, and San Diego State, a Sweet Sixteen team a year ago, in overtime. Meanwhile, Long Beach State boasts convincing victories against No. 15 Pittsburgh and, obviously, No. 14 Xavier just yesterday.

To make a run at Long Beach State, and a run at the finals in this tournament, Auburn will have to find their matchups early and hang around with the 49ers until the very end of the contest, where they can perhaps can pull some similar late-game theatrics and come away with what would surely be considered an upset. Depth coming off of the bench will be crucial for Auburn, especially a day after a wire-to-wire battle. Guys like Allen Payne, who did not play yesterday but has plenty of experience under his belt, could be huge for Auburn when the rest of Tony Barbee’s forwards start to lose their legs.

Tonight, Auburn will have an even better chance, on an even bigger stage on ESPN2 and in the semifinals of tournament basketball, to make a statement and to prove some things to the world and to themselves. Auburn will have the opportunity once again to play with passion. If they can find a way to play up against and beat Long Beach State, they could be looking at the opportunity to play against an NCAA tournament-bound team in a championship matchup that would have to be considered one of the biggest non-conference games the Tigers have had in years. But if they come up short, Auburn could still be set for an intriguing matchup in their third game of the series against Tony Barbee’s former team.

Either way, this tournament has plenty left in store for Auburn. And, either way, it’ll be well worth staying up late again.

Photo via.

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