AUBURN, Ala. – Frankly, only one guy from each team had his offense going.
What started as a sloppy turnover-fest evolved into a one-on-one shootout between Auburn senior Frankie Sullivan and Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne junior Frank Gaines.
Happily for the home squad, Sullivan’s 26 points (11-20 FG) pulled it out in the Tigers’ 61-50 comeback victory to please 6,391 spectators Friday at Auburn Arena on opening night.
“I just felt it. My teammates look to me to go score when we need to,” Sullivan said, who scored 16 after half. “That’s one of my jobs on the team as a leader. I really don’t like taking shots like that, but it was at the point that we had to.”
Sullivan showed no ill effects on his first slam dunk of the season, serving as the exclamation point. With 1 minute, 22 seconds remaining, Josh Wallace tipped an IPFW pass in traffic – forcing the Mastadons’ 17th turnover – and Allen Payne drove the distance before missing the layup.
A 6-foot-1 guard who battled back from knee surgery 2 years ago, Sullivan soared for the putback slam, giving Auburn its largest lead of 55-46 to let the AU Jungle explode with enthusiasm.
“I haven’t felt like that in a long time. I don’t think I’ve done that since my senior year (of high school),” Sullivan said. “One you feel that good and you see that you have your old self back from what I went through, it’s just a blessing.”
Sullivan’s career high is 27 points, which he scored in the final game of his freshman year – a 78-69 loss to Florida in the 2010 SEC Tournament opening round. Friday was his best effort since then – in that span, he’s scored 22 points on five occasions, including four times last year.
“He did good last year, but he played at 75, maybe 80 percent of his capacity,” Auburn head coach Tony Barbee said. “Your confidence in your legs isn’t quite there. It’s that second year. Now you’re seeing the pop back in his step.
“He’s not just a spot-up shooter, but a guy who can create and attack that rim. He’s got to be that catalyst.”
Gaines, a preseason first-team all-Summit League selection, dumped in a career-best 32 points.
“I was on point on offense,” Gaines said. “Pierre (Bland) and Isaiah (McCray) were able to find me, and without them I wouldn’t be able to get those shots.”
Said Barbee: “The Gaines kid could play in our league and start on a lot of teams. He’s talented.”
By halftime, when IPFW led 27-23, Sullivan had made 5-of-9 shots while his teammates were 5-for-20.
Senior center Rob Chubb struggled mightily on the offensive end early, getting yanked twice in the first eight minutes after missing short-range shots. He did enforce the glass, grabbing a career-high 15 rebounds.
“Up until this year, if my offense wasn’t going, I didn’t have much going on,” Chubb said. “Now I was realizing my shot wasn’t falling, so the only way I could help my team was getting every rebound I could.”
Neither offense was aesthetically excellent. Auburn ended up shooting 41 percent from the floor, with Payne chipping in 12 points on 4-for-7 shooting to go along with seven rebounds and three steals. But the Tigers produced 16 turnovers against just 10 assists.
Visiting IPFW was a little bit worse (17 turnovers, 10 assists) and other than Gaines couldn’t get anything going from the perimeter against Auburn’s new-look zone. The Mastadons shot 29 percent as a team, and only Bland and Joe Edwards, combining for five baskets, produced a field goal besides Gaines.
“We all understand that (29) percent is a ridiculous number, defensively. I mean, ridiculous,” Barbee said. “Our identity is always going to be how tough we are and how good we are defensively.”
IPFW (0-1) went 11-19 last year, including 5-13 in the Summit League, and lost 13 of its last 15 games in 2011-12. The first half’s up-and-down tempo befitted the Mastadons, who contrary to their mascot were one of the nation’s fastest squads last season.
This was IPFW’s first game in its history against an active SEC member. The Mastadons dropped to 0-37 all-time against the six power conferences.
“When I walked into the locker room, every single one of them, including those new guys that probably didn’t get the minutes they wanted, they all stood up and went crazy,” Barbee said. “They all understand that winning is the most important thing, and they know we need them and they know they are behind right now.”
By the numbers
.8997 – Auburn’s points per possession. The Tigers’ clip was .952 last season.
.7356 – IPFW’s points per possession. Auburn, defensively, compiled a .975 figure last season.
0-for-21 – The shooting marks for all IPFW players not named Frank Gaines, Pierre Bland or Joe Edwards. The Mastadons only checked in eight guys, and nobody over Gaines’ 6-foot-5 height scored a basket.
2 – minutes played by super-athletic freshman Shaq Johnson, recording no stats except one personal foul. Said Barbee: “It’s about earning my trust. All those new guys, all six of them. When they look confused on anything we’re doing defensively or offensively – and it wasn’t just Shaq, it was all six of them – then in this type of game, when it was hairy there for a minute, it’s hard to put young guys back in the game.”
The good: Junior forward Allen Payne played a career-high 37 minutes, and made the most of them. He scored 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting and 4-of-6 free throws, grabbing seven rebounds (four offensive), handing out three assists and three steals. He was second to Sullivan in points and Chubb in boards, while leading the Tigers in steals and helpers. Nice, all-around, fill-the-stat-sheet kind of night for a glue guy.
The bad: Senior forward Noel Johnson didn’t build on his double-double from Monday’s exhibition, missing all six shots from the field and settling for a pair of free throws. He did have six rebounds and a pair of steals.
The funny: a front-row spectator from the AU Jungle – which was packed to the gills by tipoff, by the way – brandished an orange-and-blue ‘ADT’ shield on his oversized sign, a nod to 7-foot reserve Asauhn Dixon-Tatum. The blocking artist and juco transfer had his first stuff in an Auburn uniform Friday, logging 8 minutes.
A win’s a win, but this blend of offensive players has a ways to go. As long as opponents dominated by one or two scorers can’t solve Auburn’s zone, the preseason will lend them enough victories to build some confidence.
Auburn next hits the game court at the Charleston Classic, beginning Thursday against Murray State (31-2 last year). After a four-game tournament which takes the Tigers from South Carolina to Boston College, Auburn will return home Nov. 25 against Rhode Island – the day after the Iron Bowl.