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Hoops Report: Sunk


It just doesn’t get any worse for Auburn than Tuesday night. The Tigers were out-muscled, outrun, and outplayed by their eternal enemy, the Crimson Tide, and all on their home floor.

The defeat was the most lopsided home loss Auburn has ever suffered at the hands of Alabama in the long history of the rivalry, and that 18-point margin stands as the worst the Tigers have been beaten by anyone in the newly minted Auburn Arena.

It was a frustrating game from the outset that sent the home crowd on an emotional roller coaster. There was the frenzied riot after a poorly officiated first half. There were the demoralized fans heading quietly for the exits in the final minutes.

Auburn played fast, loose, and uncharacteristically following last Saturday’s high-scoring game against Mississippi State. What was fluid ball movement in transition and smooth finishes at the rim in Starkville quickly turned into sloppy ball control and out-of-control drives to the basket against Alabama.

The Tigers started the game strong and played within themselves. But when calls from the officials and Auburn’s own free throw shooting began turned south, it was impossible for Auburn to make a run or keep any kind of pace. Alabama’s press bogged the Tigers down on the offensive end all night, and Auburn was seemingly never able to get the ball in transition, which was a huge catalyst in leading the Tigers to their biggest point total of the season in the game prior against Mississippi State.

Auburn’s bench was only able to muster 9 points in the losing effort, and everyone not named Frankie Sullivan combined for just 33 percent shooting from the free throw line. Rob Chubb and Kenny Gabriel both had four turnovers—each was sloppy with the ball down low—and Varez Ward finished with just three points after his career-high 24 last Saturday. Ward turned the ball over six times against Alabama on some out-of-control drives and pushes to the basket that could have one wondering if he’s still trying to feel out how much he has under him in his new legs.

At the end of the day, it was simply a frustrating loss to a bitter—the bitterest—rival, made all the more bitter for being the Tiger’s fourth straight loss to the Crimson Tide. And for Kenny Gabriel, the rest of Auburn’s seniors, and quite possibly December graduate Frankie Sullivan, it was their last chance at beating Alabama on their home floor and leaving their mark on the rivalry.

Going into the game we discussed at length the history of the teams and players on both sides— how their legacies can be shaped by performances on the big stage of Auburn-Alabama games alone. This time around, it was JaMychal Green and Frankie Sullivan who would undoubtedly lead their respective teams onto the floor, and would take ownership of the results in they way they lead their team.

Green’s legacy is solidified as the ultimate Tiger killer and enemy of all things orange and blue, after once again going off against Auburn on Tuesday with a total of 19 points, leading his team in scoring and relishing in the boos that rained down on his team and the officials at the end of the first half and throughout the night. In seven games against Auburn throughout his career, Green has averaged 12.5 points, had 15+ point performances in four of those games, put in a game-winning lay up, and led the Tide to four straight victories over Auburn as an upperclassman.

But no one is going to think much less of Frankie Sullivan either, whose legacy remains much the same as well after scoring a game-high 21 points against the Tide, just as would be expected of Auburn’s warrior shooting guard, who has always seemed to battle through tough times. His personal record against Alabama now sits at 3-2, after missing both of last year’s losses sitting out the season on a medical redshirt. Even in the loss, Frankie left his guts out on the floor… and upon those guts laid a new foundation at Auburn that will hopefully soon return the program to the next level.

But the Tigers and the Tide aren’t finished with each other, not by a long shot, as the rivalry and the season series shifts to Tuscaloosa for a February 29 meeting in Coleman Coliseum. After the proceedings in Auburn Arena on Tuesday night (and some trash talk that won’t be forgotten), the matchup is sure to be even more intense, the stakes for end-of-the-season bragging rights even higher.

First, Auburn will have to find a way to regroup and navigate the rest of its schedule. The Tigers take a road trip to Oxford before returning home to host No. 18 Mississippi State. Auburn is still trying to find a way to win on the road, and at home, after losses to Kentucky and Alabama, the Tigers are going to have to start winning big games against big opponents and ranked competition before the homecourt magic becomes a stigma that Auburn can win every game at home — except for the ones that really matter.

There’s still a lot left to this season—Gators and Bulldogs and a litany of challenges and opportunities. Auburn can’t look past anyone on the schedule and each of its remaining six games has an importance all its own, but one in particular will stand out as a central focus in the home stretch: the Feb. 29 rematch with the Tide. After what happened on Tuesday night — and again, it just doesn’t get any worse than what happened on Tuesday night — there’s really only one thing this team can do to move on as a group and dispel the dark cloud set to hang over them well into the summer and next season. Beat Bama. Sink the Tide. Let them know how it feels to take a beating in their own house from their most bitter rivalry.

And even better, let themselves know what it feels like to give it out.

Photo via Todd Van Emst.

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