Auburn, Ala.--Tony Barbee says he is excited to see his Tigers enjoy some success as Auburn heads into the opening round of the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament on Thursday.
Following back-to-back wins at home vs. Ole Miss and on the road at LSU that helped earn junior forward Kenny Gabriel SEC Player of the Week honors, the Tigers will take on the Georgia Bulldogs at noon CST on Thursday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
On Feb. 5th in Athens the Bulldogs defeated Auburn 81-72 in a contest that went to overtime.
“We played a good game against Georgia in Athens,” Barbee says. “They are a difficult matchup for us because of their size and the challenges they present inside.
“It seems like that was four months ago it has been so long since we played them,” Barbee says. “They are probably a much different team from when we played them and I know we are a much different team than when we played at that point.”
Earnest Ross scored a career-high 30 points for the Tigers in the first game vs. the Bulldogs. Forward Travis Leslie led UGA with 22 points and 14 rebounds.
Georgia closed the season with a road loss while Auburn won on Saturday night at LSU, rallying from 15 points down in the second half to avoid finishing last in the SEC West.
“It was fun to watch the reaction from the kids,” Barbee says. “That is the most important thing. The biggest thing is that these guys have given me everything they have got. They have done everything I have asked all year long and that is why I talked about this being one of the most fun and rewarding years I have had.
“Obviously, that doesn’t reflect in the record, but more than anything this year was about building the foundation for what is to come for the future of this program. These guys have done a great job of establishing what I wanted established--the mental toughness, the physical toughness of how we are going to play with a never give up, never die attitude and so that is why it was rewarding to see those guys have the kind of joy they had on Saturday night.”
Sophomore guard Earnest Ross leads the Tigers in scoring and rebounding.
After finishing 4-12 in the SEC and 10-19 to close the regular season, the Tigers will try to make a run in the conference tournament. If they can upset Georgia on Thursday in the opening game of the four-day event, the Tigers will take on Alabama on Friday afternoon. The Tide defeated Auburn by two points in their last matchup in Tuscaloosa.
“The big change, and it is the same change for everybody now that we are in postseason play, is what you did two games ago, what you did 20 games ago, doesn’t matter,” Barbee says. “Everybody’s starting record is 0-0 and usually the teams that are still excited about playing this time of year are the teams that continue to play. I think that I have one of those teams that they are excited to be around each other every day and they are excited to have another opportunity to play on Thursday.”
Gabriel comes into the tournament as Auburn’s hottest player. He averaged 20 points and nine rebounds in Auburn’s victories over Ole Miss and LSU.
Commenting on Gabriel being named SEC Player of the Week, Barbee says, “I am excited for Kenny, and it is a much-deserved honor for him for the way he played this past week. What he has to realize is to believe in himself because he has the ability to be that type of player consistently over the course of the season. He hasn’t this year. That has a lot to do with why we struggled because we needed him to play better because he has that ability.
“I’m excited that he is playing his best down the stretch, and this will be a big offseason for him to put in the work to physically improve his body so he can compete at that kind of level night-in and night-out in this league,” Barbee adds.
“It seems like with individual awards, they are also indicators of how your team is playing. If we went 0-2 last week, as well as he played, he doesn*t get this award. It is a great indicator of your team*s success as well.”
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