Work in Sports
Auburn, with Fishback firing, shows it can still play
Posted: Saturday March 11, 2000 01:03 AM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
ATLANTA -- When nobody in the college basketball-loving world gives you a point guard's chance in the paint, when you're considered first-round fodder before the opening tip, sometimes it's best just to go ahead and play the freaking game.
For a reeling Auburn, without its star player and facing a Florida team on Friday that put a 29-point whuppin' on the Tigers just 17 days before, it seemed the only way to go.
Amazingly, it worked.
Auburn, losers of four straight games since the NCAA declared star Chris Porter ineligible for accepting money from an agent -- a decision finalized when Porter's appeal was denied hours before game time -- stunned the 11th-ranked Gators in the Southeastern Conference tournament in maybe the biggest stunner of a stunning tournament.
"I think it proved we can face adversity and deal with it," Auburn hero Daymeon Fishback said after Auburn's 78-70 win in a tournament that also saw No. 8 Tennessee and No. 16 Kentucky fall. "It shows that our guys won't stop fighting."
Auburn was given up for dead after Porter was slapped down by the NCAA last month. The preseason No. 1 in Sports Illustrated had tumbled out of the rankings and was, by many experts' reckonings, an NCAA tournament first-round loss waiting to happen.
But the Tigers didn't see it that way. They played progressively better after the embarrassing loss to Florida, losing to No. 10 LSU by a basket and losing by nine at Arkansas.
Friday, they came out against Billy Donovan's Gators, played aggressively, handled the Florida pressure defense with ease, took a lead with some 4 1/2 minutes left in the first half and never gave it up.
"Basically, their team destroyed our team tonight," said an agitated Donovan, who undoubtedly will see his team's seed in the NCAA tournament drop considerably with the loss. "I don't think our basketball team has any excuse, whatsoever. They didn't seem to understand what was at stake today."
Auburn did. Every run the Gators made -- and they didn't make many -- the Tigers answered. Every time the Gators fouled -- a bruising 44 times, 13 more than Auburn -- the Tigers made them pay. Auburn shot 26 more free throws, and made 20 more.
And when the unrelenting Gators still managed to get within three with 5:15 left in the game, Fishback was there to answer with maybe the biggest shot of his career.
"Mamadou [N'diaye, the Auburn center] gave me a screen, I got an inch and I let it go," Fishback said. "I think the heart of this team was really brought out tonight."
Fishback's clutch 3-pointer from the left wing answered a 3-pointer from Florida's Brett Nelson seconds earlier and put the Tigers back up by six points. Florida pared Auburn's lead down to four with 49 seconds left, but that's as close as the Gators came.
Fishback, a senior guard playing with a cyst on his right knee, finished with a season-high 21 points, a career-high 14 rebounds (eight of them on the offensive side) and his first double-double ever.
"It was an inspirational win," said Auburn coach Cliff Ellis, who was calling his 745th game as a college head coach. "That's as fine a win as I've ever been associated with."
Auburn won despite shooting only 33.3 percent and only 23.5 percent from 3-point range.
But the Tigers won because they turned it over only 11 times (they had fumbled away 21 the last time these two teams played). They handled the Florida press with seeming ease (thanks largely to the ballhandling of Fishback and point guard Doc Robinson) and played a scrambling man-to-man defense that held Florida to just 27.3 percent shooting after halftime.
The Tigers also won -- and, maybe, have a win or two left in them -- because they finally are learning to play without Porter.
"Nobody gave this team a reasonable chance," Ellis said. "We're gonna love Chris Porter. He's gonna be a part of us forever. But this is still a very good basketball team."
Especially when the Tigers just go out and play.