AUBURN - With 1:24 left in Saturday's season-opener at Auburn Arena, with one leap, Frankie Sullivan washed away two years of frustration.
Frankie Sullivan led Auburn to season-opening victory/Todd Van Emst photo
Allen Payne stole the ball away and drove the length of the court, but his layup wouldn't fall. Down the middle came Sullivan, flying above the rim, snatching the ball and slamming it home. The crowd of 6,391 roared and Auburn went on to open Tony Barbee's third season with a 61-50 victory over IPFW.
Sullivan suffered a severe knee injury in the summer of 2010. He came back but couldn't last and took a redshirt year. He led the team in scoring with 12.3 points per game last season, but the speed and explosiveness that had once been his trademarks were missing.
They're not missing anymore.
Sullivan scored 26 points Friday night as the Tigers rallied from a 9-point first-half deficit with an 18-4 run, punctuated by Sullivan's dunk, in the second half.
"It feels great," Sullivan said. "I haven't felt like that in a long time. It makes me want to go to work right now, get back in the gym and get more shots up. Once you feel that good and see your old self back, after what I went through with the knee surgery, it's a blessing."
Auburn crawled back to within 27-23 after a cold-shooting first half, caught up at 42-42 on a Sullivan 3-pointer with 10:04 left and pulled away.
Barbee's secret zone, the one he hates playing, stymied the Mastodons down the stretch and the Tigers celebrated.
"The zone has been good for us," Barbee said. "The zone has been a good defense for us since I've been here. The guys understand how much I despise playing zone, but until we can guard that basketball and do a better job of communicating and anticipating instead of reacting, we are going to have to go back and forth.
"I'm not going to give away the secret. It looks like a 2-3, but it's really different than your normal 2-3."
Senior center struggled from in the first half, missing in close, but he had a career-high 15 rebounds to go with 10 points. Payne scored 12 points. IPFW guard Frank Gaines showed it wasn't a fluke that he was ninth nationally in scoring last season, going off for 32 points.
"That guy is one of the best players I've played against," Sullivan said. "He could play anywhere."
Auburn's heralded newcomers spent most of the night on the bench. Jordan Price played 13 minutes and hit a 3-pointer. Point guard Brian Greene Jr. played 10 minutes and had three assists and three turnovers.
"We all know, including me, how good these new guys are," Barbee said. "Exhibition games and games that count at this level are all different. They all know it. We just explained it to them. That's why you have veterans, because they are expected to carry the load until these new guys catch up with everything we are trying to accomplish and how we are supposed to play on the floor.
"We to them this season is a marathon, not a sprint. They all know how much we need them. I have to look at them and our team has to look at them and say 'You are ready.' Tonight, they weren't ready. The game was moving 100 miles per hour and they were moving at about 70 and behind the whole play. That's why you have veteran players."
But Barbee liked what he saw in the locker room when it was over.
"Every single one of them stood up and went crazy, even those new guys who probably didn't get the minutes they wanted," Barbee said. "They understand winning is the most important thing. They know we need them and they know they are behind right now."
Auburn plays Murray State on Thursday in the first round of the College of Charleston Classic.
For videos of interviews with Barbee, Sullivan and Chubb, follow the links below.