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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Offensive outage: Tigers flop in Tuscaloosa, lose to state-rival Alabama 73-61

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — With outside shooters aplenty and a frontcourt that occasionally steps up, Auburn has proven to be a tough offense for most SEC teams to handle.

Not for Alabama.

The Crimson Tide halted the Tigers’ hot streak Saturday afternoon with a 73-61 victory at Coleman Coliseum, earning a split in the season series and avoiding being swept by its state rival for the third time in the last four years.

Alabama (16-14, 6-10 SEC) clamped down defensively in a sloppy game, holding Auburn to 35 percent shooting and keeping the Tigers below 70 points for the first time since the teams met in January.

Two of Auburn’s four lowest point totals this season have come against the Crimson Tide.

“We were just really on top of everything they were doing,” Alabama guard Mikhail Torrance said. “They couldn’t really find an answer for us.”

Tony Mitchell scored 16 points and Torrance and Chris Hines added 13 apiece for the Crimson Tide, which struggled to find a rhythm itself before putting the game of reach with a 10-1 run late in the second half.

The win, coupled with South Carolina’s upset of Vanderbilt, gives Alabama the fourth seed out of the West when the SEC tournament begins this week at the Sommet Center in Nashville, Tenn. The Tide play the Gamecocks at 1 p.m. ET Thursday.

Auburn (15-16, 6-10) dropped to the fifth seed and plays Florida, the fourth seed from the East, on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

Coach Jeff Lebo, whose future with Auburn will be decided in an upcoming meeting with athletics director Jay Jacobs, wasn’t ready to write an epitaph for the Tigers’ season afterward.

“We’ll assess it when the season is over,” he said. “It’s not over yet. So we’ll sit down and assess it when it’s complete.”

Saturday’s game won’t help his cause. The Tigers struggled offensively from start to finish, getting next to nothing from their frontcourt.

Lucas Hargrove finished with three points and five turnovers. Brendon Knox, who scored 21 points off the bench in Auburn’s win against Mississippi State on Wednesday, couldn’t avoid foul trouble, picking up two fouls in five minutes and getting his third just before halftime.

Knox played an SEC season-low 15 minutes, finishing with six points and three rebounds, leaving Lebo with few answers about how to get consistent play from his best low-post scoring threat.

“I wish I knew. I’d fix it,” Lebo said. “That’s him. That’s been one of his Achilles’ heels. He gets fouls quickly and then is not particularly good at playing with fouls when he gets them. You’ve got to be smarter at that point. ... He can look like a hundred bucks one night and looks like he never played the next.”

The frontcourt’s struggles put the onus on guards Tay Waller and DeWayne Reed to deliver. They combined for 39 points but were just 13-for-40 from the floor.

“It’s frustrating, because when we aren’t scoring on the inside, it lets them stiffen up their defense on the perimeter,” Reed said. “So then it becomes harder for anyone to score.”

Alabama harassed Waller all afternoon, forcing the sizzling shooter inside the arc. The senior, who had averaged 26.5 points and shot 64 percent from 3-point range in his previous four games, finished with 22 but was only 4-for-12 from long range.

“We couldn’t even get a lot of layups going,” said Waller, who still became the first Auburn player to score more than 20 points in five straight games since Wesley Person in 1994. “It was just one of those games where we struggled offensively.”

Alabama didn’t fare much better while taking a slim 31-30 lead into halftime, but the Tide shot 52 percent in the second half.

Torrance, a senior, scored 11 points and grabbed eight of his game-high 12 rebounds after the break in his final regular season game at Coleman Coliseum.

“You couldn’t ask for anything more,” he said. “We came out and gave them one.”

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