Levi was back in the starting lineup and continued his hot shooting to lead us to a relatively easy win over auburn. Releford struggled again in the first half, but our zone defense was very effective, and as I mentioned Levi got things rolling with a couple of dunks and some 3's in the first half. Shannon Hale didn't light up the stat book, but had another solid game, and actually made a dunk (in fact, he should have got an AND-1, but no foul was called).
We learned our lesson after Denson and Harrell burned us on the dribble drive in the first matchup. We ran just enough man to keep them off balance, but primarily played a 2-3 zone. I was concerned they would hurt us from the perimeter, but thankfully after making their first shot they never got going. Mixing in some matchup zone helped us to get a hand in their shooter's face and prevent them from getting into a groove, although I thought our bigs struggled in the matchup. Remarkably, auburn settled for 27 three-point shots, and made only 5. Personally, I would have ran a triangle + 2 defense since auburn only has two decent players, both of which are guards, but obviously the game plan worked well.
After Levi carried us in the first half, Releford stepped it up in the second to help out. Relly finished with 16 points, and Retin quietly had a solid game with 13. We still had issues on the glass and at the free throw line, but auburn was not good enough to make us pay. They out rebounded us by 8, including getting a ridiculous 24 offensive rebounds to our 8. On one possession when they were trying to make a run in the second half, I counted 7 shots at the basket. We were only 15 of 23 from the free throw line.
While some of the stats are worrisome, they don't really tell the story of this game. We got a 20+ point lead, and although auburn was able to cut it to 11 or 12 at times, they were never a serious threat to steal the game. Nevertheless, if we are going to make a run in the SEC tournament, we must improve our free throw shooting and rebounding, while continuing to get good perimeter shooting with Levi and Shannon Hale helping Releford with the scoring duties.
We had a strange timeout with 12 minutes remaining in the game. auburn had cut our lead to 12 and we had just had the aforementioned possession where auburn got about 7 shots, plus we got beat back on defense giving up a transition basket, and were generally playing very sloppy at the time. Coach Grant appeared quite upset on the sidelines just moments before, but during the timeout, I don't think he said more than 5 words to the players. Coach Pujol talked to the team, then Coach Grant appeared to calmly ask a couple of the players some questions, to which they responded, and then Releford spoke for the remainder of the timeout. Obviously, I couldn't hear all of what was being said, but I was concerned that it seemed quite unusual at the time. We immediately put together a 5-0 run out of that timeout, so whatever was said obviously worked.
I thought the officiating was very inconsistent. I'm hesitant to criticize the officials, because I understand it's a very difficult sport to call. Furthermore, the most difficult games to call, at any level, is a rivalry game between two bad teams, and let's face it, that's exactly what we had Saturday. Officials have a tendency to "call it tight" and "keep control" in rivalry games. The problem is, it seemed to me that they were calling it much tighter on the perimeter than in the post. Furthermore, there were some obvious "game management" tactics that officials use (that I don't necessarily agree with), that were on display Saturday. Officials are taught that when one team is obviously in control of the game, to give the other team the "benefit of the doubt" or, worse, "only call the obvious" against them. The thinking is that a team that is down by 20 is already frustrated and looking for any excuse to go off, whereas the team with a big lead will not be quite as upset over getting the short end of a questionable call when they are winning big anyway. I've always had a big problem with that mindset; if one team is up 30-40 points and still pressing against a hopeless opponent, then I can understand it, but a 15-20 point game with 15 or more minutes remaining should still be officiated as if the score is tied in my opinion. Also, Mike Thibodeaux has been calling since I was in high school. He's not an awful official, in fact, I'm sure I'll never make it anywhere near as far as he has in the profession. That being said, he just can't get up and down the court like he needs to, and is constantly out of position.
The crowd was much better than I expected, probably close to 8,000, including nearly 1,000 sad and delusional barners scattered throughout who were sent home feeling like the losers they are. The student turnout was disappointing, but the Alabama fans who were there were loud from the tip, and the players seemed to feed off of the energy. I'm normally not a big fan of making football references at basketball games, but the tomahawk chop when auburn was shooting free throws in the second half was worth it just to irritate basketball ignorant barners who were in attendance.
Up next, we travel to Rupp Arena for our final away game of the season. If you are looking for reasons to have hope: Arkansas got their first road win of the year at Rupp, Kentucky is now on a 2 game losing streak, and they've had problems with the 1-3-1 halfcourt trap at times this year, a defense that we run fairly effectively. Plus, we are more experienced. On the other hand, they lead the conference in offensive rebounding, and we have absolutely no answers for Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle. For entertainment purposes only, I would take the Cats if the line is single digits. The carnage begins at 8pm CST on Fat Tuesday, if you are looking for a miserable end to the Mardi Gras season.
Big Picture: We are one game behind Vandy, and have the tie breaker with them, for the 10th spot. They play LSU at home Thursday, and finish up on the road against Ole Miss. Geaux Tigers.