Focused Tigers invade Starkville

n Auburn has won 5 of its last 6, has designs on a first-round SEC tournament bye.
By Brad Locke
Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – With the kind of roll Auburn is on right now – five wins in its last six games – it makes one wonder if the Tigers’ collective comportment has changed. A little swagger in their step. Chins up, chests out.
But no, coach Jeff Lebo said, his team is not striking a George Washington pose as it pilots some great wave of momentum into Starkville for today’s 5 p.m. showdown with Mississippi State. Not at all.
“I think we’ve got some confidence. I don’t think we’ve carried ourselves any differently,” Lebo said. “We’ve been pretty workmanlike when we’ve played well and in times when we’ve not played well. That’s what you have to do; it’s a long, hard season.”
The emphasis early in the season was on hard. Auburn began SEC play 1-3 and was 3-5 before knocking off Tennessee on Feb. 7 and getting on the current hot streak that’s carried it to second place in the Western Division.
Auburn (18-10, 7-6 SEC) and MSU (17-11, 7-6) are actually tied as far as records, but the Tigers own a 91-76 win over the Bulldogs on Feb. 14. On the line today is the inside track on a No. 2 SEC Tournament seed and the first-round bye that comes with it.
Lebo said he doesn’t want his team worrying too much about that. Heads down, push forward.
“I tell them all the time, ‘Focus on the task at hand and stay in the moment.’ That’s what we have to do,” he said.
Tough setbacks for MSU
The same can be said for MSU, which has dropped three straight and four of its last five. Two of those losses have been in double-overtime – to LSU and Alabama – and the long, hard season Lebo spoke of is wearing down the Bulldogs.
Then there’s the frustration of so many close losses – of State’s six SEC setbacks, four have come by five points or less.
It’s a physical and psychological beating the Bulldogs have taken.
“You don’t have time this time of year to let it take its toll on you. That’s easier said than done,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. “You’ve got to put it behind you, you’ve got three games left.”
As for today’s game, MSU can’t let it be a repeat of what happened in Auburn, when junior guard Tay Waller had career highs with 32 points and eight 3-pointers.
He hasn’t slowed down much since that game. Over his last four outings, Waller is averaging 21.8 points per game and shooting 48.7 percent from 3-point range.
“When he gets going, he is a guy that really opens up some things for everybody else,” Lebo said following Wednesday’s 77-64 win over Ole Miss, in which Waller scored 18 points. “He is a guy that we have got to get shots for.”
It’s the Bulldogs’ job to prevent that, but if they don’t, Auburn will leave them in its wake. Like Lebo, though, Stansbury doesn’t want his team looking ahead to seedings and the tournament.
“Every game brings on the same amount of importance, and at the end of 16 games all that stuff works itself out,” he said. “This game is not the determining game in all that.”

Brad Locke