Photo by Todd J. Van Emst
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn coach Tony Barbee calls this his "funnest year" as a coach, even if he hasn't had all that many reasons to celebrate on game days.
A big one came last weekend when the Tigers surged from a 19-point deficit over the final 11 minutes to beat Mississippi State 65-62 for their second Southeastern Conference win. It was one sign that Barbee's frequent emphasis on defense is starting to pay off for a team he readily admits has plenty of offensive deficiencies.
"What we've done is defensively the kids are really starting to understand the affect that you can have on the game by guarding your butts off on each and every possession," Barbee said on Monday. "That's where we've made the biggest strides here lately and why we've been in some very competitive games and were able to get over the hump at least a couple of times."
Stingy defense certainly paid off last Saturday, when the Tigers scored 17 straight points and forced five turnovers during a 4-minute stretch after trailing 51-32.
"It's gratifying because of what these kids have put in all year long, and they haven't backed down even given our record," Barbee said. "It's always neat to see them down 19 and not hanging their heads, not acting like it was over, but just keep battling every single possession. When the tide started to turn, the momentum shifted even more in our favor."
Auburn (9-15, 2-8 SEC) has won two of its last four league games. That silenced any speculation following an 0-6 start that Barbee's rebuilding project would start with the first SEC team to go winless in league play since former member Georgia Tech was 0-14 during the 1953-54 season.
It still doesn't quite explain why Barbee said he's having so much fun coaching a team with the only losing overall record in the SEC.
"This is probably the funnest year I've had in coaching because of the quality of kids I've got," Barbee said. "They come in every day with a great attitude, ready to work, ready to get better, ready to get coached."
Now, Auburn will try to build on the small dose of momentum from the win over the Bulldogs. They visit Mississippi Wednesday night and then host No. 18 Vanderbilt Saturday.
"The comeback win says that we're a very scrappy team, that we never give up," Auburn guard Earnest Ross said. "We always believe in ourselves. We're just that type of team. That's the type of team coach Barbee wants us to be right now. As long as we keep playing like that, we're always going to have a chance to compete in each and every game that we play.
"It gives us a lot of confidence. We're ready to play. We're excited."