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Auburn's long slide continues

AUBURN – Tony Barbee sat down and sighed, shaking his head slowly. The nightmare that has been his third season as Auburn’s head basketball coach showed no signs of a happy ending.

Shaq Johnson stuffs a Vanderbilt shot/Todd Van Emst photo

Moments earlier, time had run out on yet another Auburn loss, its seventh straight and 13 in 14 games.

Barbee said his team played hard and with purpose and persistence in Saturday night’s game against Vanderbilt at Auburn Arena. But, as has so often been the case, shots wouldn’t fall. After Chris Denson slammed home an alley-oop dunk to give Auburn a 16-11 lead with 9:52 left in the first half, Auburn players seemed energized. Little did they know.

By the time Denson scored again with 16:13 left in the game, Auburn had missed 17 consecutive shots and had gone 13:05 without a field goal. And Vanderbilt led 31-19.

The Tigers fought back, getting within four points. They fell back and fought back again. But in the end, Vanderbilt celebrated a 62-55 victory, Auburn fell to 9-20 overall and 3-13 in the Southeastern Conference and Barbee was left to search again for answers.

It went like this:

Just couldn’t get the ball in the basket?

“You are correct.”

Seventeen straight after good start?

“I saw a lot of wide-open shots. I saw a lot of point-blank shots at the rim. I saw a lot of wide-open 3’s. We collectively fought harder. I thought we were engaged. I thought we were persistent defensively. But you’re not going to win many games in this league shooting 33 percent from the floor and 16 percent from 3.”

It seems like this has been a thing for 4-5 games.

“Longer than that. Longer than that.”

Has anything changed since early in the season?

“You have to have confidence as a player. This game is about confidence. It makes the difference between All-Americans and the average Joe. You have to believe you are the baddest guy walking on that floor, not out of arrogance but out of your hard work. We have guys working hard, but when you step on that floor you have to believe. You have to have confidence.

“When they shot the ball, they looked like guys that had confidence shooting the ball. We had some guys that played tentatively offensively. You guys have seen me coach for a while. There’s not much I say offensively unless I see a guy being selfish, and we don’t have many guys being selfish. Effort, defense and toughness are what I comment on. I don’t want these guys play tight offensively. I get on them about toughness and effort and grittiness. That’s defense. Offense is about confidence, and these guys all know I have confidence in them because they work hard. You have to go out there and believe and make it happen.”

Vanderbilt (13-15, 7-9) was no juggernaut Saturday either. The Commodores shot just 37.7 percent from the field. They scored just 10 points in the paint to Auburn’s 30. Their bench was outscored 25-6. Auburn shot 35.7 percent on 20-of-56.

But those numbers didn’t tell the story.

Vanderbilt made just six two-point field goals but was 10-of-26 from 3-point range. Auburn was 3-of-18. Vanderbilt, the worst free throw shooting team in the league, was 20-of-31. Auburn was 12-of-19.

Denson scored 15 points and had four rebounds for Auburn. Point guard Josh Wallace had 8 points.

“Very frustrating,” Wallace said. “I don’t think words can explain. We just have to keep fighting. We had that stretch of missed shots. We did good on defense. We just have to make shots. We are getting good looks. We just have to step up with confidence and knock them down.”

Auburn will try again to win a game Wednesday night when Tennessee comes to town for the final home game of the season and Senior Night for Frankie Sullivan, Rob Chubb, Wallace and Noel Johnson.

With Auburn now assured on playing on the first day of the SEC Tournament, Barbee was asked what his goal is now.

“Beat Tennessee,” he said. And with that, he went away, surely to ponder what has gone so terribly wrong in a season that started with promise and enthusiasm.

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