By Scott Scroggins
AUBURN, Ala. – On Thursday night, Auburn (10-6, 1-3 SEC) found itself in an unenviable spot, as the Tigers fell behind 30-10 after the first quarter at defending national champion South Carolina and trailed by as many as 22 points early in the second quarter.
But instead of wilting under the pressure of facing an uphill battle against the No. 9 Gamecocks in a hostile environment, the Tigers fought their way back in the game, getting as close as six midway through the fourth quarter, before falling, 71-63, in front of a crowd of 12,011 at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.
“If you take away the first quarter, we win the second quarter, we win the third quarter and we lose by one in the fourth quarter,” Auburn head coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. “Just can’t get down. But it’s a tough environment. It was tough. And we’ve talked about this before, it’s very hard to get down like that. We have made the run, we have come back, but when you’re playing on the road, in this type of environment, against this type of team, that’s tough.”
Here are three takeaways from Thursday’s game.
Runs key Auburn’s comebackAfter falling behind by as many as 22 points early in the second quarter, Auburn started chipping away at the deficit with the first of three big runs. The Tigers went on a 9-0 run over 2:11, highlighted by seven points from Janiah McKay, cutting South Carolina’s lead to 34-21 with 4:25 remaining in the first half.
“We relaxed,” Williams-Flournoy said of what changed after the first quarter. “We calmed down. That’s really all it was. (South Carolina) scores, the place erupts. I don’t even have enough timeouts to call to try to get us calmed down. But once we calmed down and once we got settled, we were able to play basketball then.”
The Gamecocks ended the half on an 8-4 run to take a 42-25 lead into the locker room. But Auburn responded with two third-quarter runs. First, a 10-0 run sparked by two Tiffany Lewis 3-pointers early in the third quarter cut the deficit to 45-35 with 6:03 to go in the period.
South Carolina outscored Auburn 10-4 over the next 4:40, but Auburn answered again by scoring the final nine points of the third quarter and entered the final period down just 55-48.
The Tigers cut the deficit to as few as six points at 62-56 with 5:35 remaining after McKay scored four straight points, but a 6-0 South Carolina run over the next 2:12 push its lead back to double digits to preserve the victory.
Auburn outscored South Carolina 53-41 over the final three quarters. The Tigers committed just seven turnovers over the final three quarters after having five in the first quarter. Auburn forced South Carolina into a season-high 20 turnovers and turned those into 20 points. It is the 15th time in 16 games this season Auburn has forced at least 20 turnovers.
McKay records third 25-point game in SEC playMcKay finished the night with 27 points, just two off her career-high, and four assists and was 11-of-13 from the free-throw line. Her streak of consecutive made free throws dating back to the SEC opener against Florida came to an end at 20.
The junior point guard is now third in the SEC in scoring in conference games at 21.8 points per game and has scored at least 25 points in three of Auburn’s first four league games. She ranks seventh in the SEC in conference games averaging 4.5 assists per game, making her the only player in the SEC to rank in the top seven in scoring and assists in league games.
“She attacked the basket hard,” Williams-Flournoy said of McKay. “She made a few not-smart decisions. You really can’t go up against A’ja Wilson. But for the majority of the (game), she did a great job of attacking the basket.”
Auburn finishes gauntlet of three straight games vs. top-20 opponentsAuburn has played three straight top-20 opponents, and despite losing all three games, the Tigers have learned a lot about themselves in battling hard against some of the nation’s best teams. Auburn was within six in the fourth quarter at South Carolina, trailed No. 19 Texas A&M by only five in the final period and held a four-point fourth-quarter lead at seventh-ranked Tennessee.
“We’ve got a lot of heart,” Williams-Flournoy said of her team. “And that’s the one thing that they have learned – they’ve got heart. They’ve got a lot of heart. They’ve got a lot of fight in them. And they’ve got to carry that out for the rest of the season.”
Auburn returns home for a 4 p.m. contest against Arkansas this Sunday. The game is being aired on the SEC Network.