It isn’t the kind of record Tony Barbee wants to come close to, but his Auburn Tigers nearly set a mark for first-half futility in a 62-55 setback to LSU at home Saturday in the SEC opener.
With a crowd of 6,873 on hand for the first conference game in the new Auburn Arena and Barbee’s inaugural league game as Auburn’s coach, the visiting Bayou Bengals rolled to a 32-6 lead at the half. Since the shot clock was first utilized by the NCAA in 1986, only Cal with five points against Notre Dame earlier this year had scored fewer than six points in an opening half. Auburn equaled the previous first-half low of six points put up by Northwestern against Illinois in 2000.
As bad as it was in the opening 20 minutes, Auburn looked like a different team in the second half by outscoring the Bayou Bengals 49-30. The home Tigers cut the LSU lead to six points on a 3-pointer by Earnest Ross with 19.6 second remaining, but could get no closer.
Auburn saw its win streak end at four to drop to 7-8 overall and 0-1 in the SEC. LSU is 9-7 in all games and 1-0 in league play.
Even with the second-half comeback, Barbee pointed to what transpired in the first half as extremely disappointing.
“I thought it was a combination of LSU playing great defense and us missing shots. I thought we got some great looks in the first half. Eight percent, I don’t know what kind of defense could hold a team to eight percent shooting,” Barbee says.
“I thought we were stagnant early against the zone. I was begging and pleading for them to move the ball quicker. Even with that said, we tracked because our offense is designed to get the ball as close as we can to the rim the majority of the time. We missed 23 layups tonight. You’re not beating anybody when you get the ball five feet within the rim and miss 23 layups. A lot of that was us, and a lot of that was LSU, because they challenged at the rim.
“I told the guys that I was proud of them for the comeback, but it was irrelevant. When you dig yourself that big a hole, you are going to expend so much energy trying to come back that it is going to be hard to get over the hump.”
The comeback was led by Ross with all 21 of his points in the final 20 minutes. Kenny Gabriel scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half and added seven rebounds to lead Auburn on the boards.
A missing ingredient for Auburn was junior Frankie Sullivan who had returned from a serious knee injury to contribute to the Tigers’ win streak. Sullivan’s leadership and basketball savvy was missed against LSU.
“Obviously not making any excuses, but you have seen the effect that he has on our team in those categories of toughness and intensity. It is contagious. That is what he brings to our team,” Barbee explains. “After the Florida State game, his leg has really been bothering him. You can see his production has gone down through the four games he has been back. It was way down against Florida State because his knee is swollen. He has a lot of pain in that knee. He tried to warm it up tonight, but he just couldn’t tolerate it. It takes a guy off the floor that really knows how to play. We were lost out there so other guys have to step up and come along. It is what it is. If he can go or not, other guys have to step up and play, and we didn’t have that tonight."
With No. 11 Kentucky up next on the road Tuesday in Lexington, Barbee says Sullivan’s status won’t be known until game time.
“He’s definitely day-to-day,” says Barbee, who adds Sullivan could still be a candidate for a medical redshirt.
Gabriel says Auburn can’t dwell on what happened against LSU.
“We may have finished on a positive note, but we can’t ever let that (first half) happen again,” he says. “We can pick it apart, but we already know what we did wrong. If you go to Kentucky with 26 or 27 thousand, you can get down worse. We need to play our game, not their game.”
Auburn lost energy in the second half by attempting to come back from so far behind.
“We were just trying to speed them up and get them uncomfortable. It hurts everybody when we do that, because we all start to lose energy. If we come out with that intensity at the beginning of the game, we wouldn’t be in that situation,” Gabriel notes.
Ross says the first half hurt mentally.
“This was the first SEC game for a lot of guys being put into a situation like that, it really hurt us. Coach kept telling us that we have to fight back and we can’t let this effect how we play,” Ross says. “We all need to stick together mentally. This isn’t the time we need to break apart as a group and get down on this game, because we have another one coming up. You can’t just dwell on one game. You have to continue to play.”
Auburn’s first half futility wasn’t limited to any one area. The home Tigers made only two-of-24 field goal attempts. The first by Rob Chubb gave Auburn a 2-0 lead 38 seconds into the game before LSU reeled off 15 straight points.
The next points by Auburn came with 9:08 remaining in the half when Gabriel made one-of-two free throw attempts. Gabriel scored the Tigers’ final three points of the half on a 3-pointer with 5:56 left before intermission. The Tigers were blanked the rest of the way, going into the dressing room looking at the 32 6 deficit.
The Bayou Bengals outrebounded Auburn 26-14 the first 20 minutes. Eleven of the LSU rebounds came on the offensive end that led to 10 points. LSU had 14 points in the paint and scored 13 points off turnovers.
LSU wasn’t that strong shooting with Auburn offering some defensive resistance. The visitors made only 13-of-33 field goals for 39.4 percent and managed only two-of-13 attempts from field goal range for 12.5 percent. Auburn was 8.3 percent from the field on the two-of-24.
Gabriel’s 3-pointer was Auburn’s only long-range connection in eight first-half attempts for a 12.5 percent reading.
LSU made four-of-six first half free throws for 66.7 percent while Auburn was one-of-two from the line for 50 percent. Ross failed to connect on six first-half shots and Josh Langford missed on all four of his attempts from the floor.
The final statistics were much more representative of the final seven-point margin.
LSU won the rebound battle 41-35 after holding a 12-boards advantage in the first half.
After only one 3-pointer in the opening half, Auburn was seven of 16 in the second half for a respectable 33.3 percent for the game. The Tigers connected on 17 of 37 second half shots from the floor for 45.9 percent after the 8.3 percent first half effort.