ATLANTA — Auburn might have been the first team booted from the SEC men’s basketball tournament, but that little factoid paled in comparison to the Tigers’ other bit of news from Wednesday:
Shortly after a blowout loss to South Carolina, Auburn officials fired fourth-year head coach Tony Barbee … somewhere between the Tigers’ bus ride from the Georgia Dome back to the team hotel in Atlanta — and before they ultimately departed for Auburn’s campus, post-defeat.
To read more about Barbee’s dismissal from Auburn, click here.
It’s hard to fathom that, prior to Wednesday, Mississippi State hadn’t won a game in 46 days (Jan. 25 vs. Auburn). But the Bulldogs finally got over the proverbial hump against Vanderbilt, controlling both halves and cruising to an 82-68 victory over the Commodores.
Put it all together and it’s fair to wonder if the Bulldogs — who started SEC play at 3-2 before suffering 13 straight defeats — suddenly have the pent-up mojo to knock off Ole Miss on Thursday and then advance to Friday’s quarterfinals (against Georgia).
Not a bad dream, plausibly speaking, for a program that incurred 10 double-digit defeats during their recent 13-game slide.
With South Carolina presiding over a modest lead with 5:05 left in the first half, guard Brenton Williams (16 points) coolly nailed a pair of free throws and buried three triples in a three-minute stretch — with the last one coming just seconds after a made basket from Auburn.
After that, the Gamecocks steadily improved upon their lead in the latter half, with Auburn drawing no closer than 12 points after the first TV timeout.
South Carolina freshman Duane Notice picked the perfect time to post career highs in scoring (23 points) and rebounds (eight). For good measure, the reserve guard also busted four three-pointers against Auburn — just his second game of multiple treys all year.
Interestingly, Notice’s college breakout comes just eight days after he was on the business end of an in-game tirade from Gamecocks head coach Frank Martin, who was caught, on camera, raking Notice over the coals during South Carolina’s 72-46 loss to top-ranked Florida (March 4).
Martin would eventually apologize for the incident, lamenting how he needs to exhibit more patience and civility with players.
For the opening minutes of Game #1, Auburn center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum rose above the crowd of would-be rebounders to successfully tip-in teammate Tahj Shamsid-Deen’s shot.
Dixon-Tatum then sprinted the length of the floor to reject a South Carolina fast-break attempt near the basket.
It would be the first of seven Dixon-Tatum swats for the night.
During the first half of Game #2, Vandy senior Rob Odom (15 points) subtly emerged from the defensive ‘help’ side on a point-blank shot from Mississippi State and swatted the ball to a pair of teammates.
Mississippi State guard Fred Thomas might have the most beautiful shooting stroke of any player in this tournament (including Vandy’s Luke Kornet) — think Glen Rice from the 1980s or Dennis Scott from the early 90s. As luck would have it, Thomas also has a colorful way of celebrating his long-range gems, sprinting back on defense while holding an invisible spyglass to his right eye … with three fingers commemorating each triple.
Speaking of Dennis Scott, Thomas’s flat-top haircut would have meshed perfectly with Georgia Tech’s fun-and-gun offense of two decades prior. The Ramblin’ Wreck — specifically the "Lethal Weapon 3" days of Scott, Kenny Anderson and Brian Oliver (1990 Final Four) — would have loved Thomas’s spot-up abilities along the break, as well.
It was a blustery, somewhat dreary night in Atlanta. And yet, a large contingent of Kentucky fans chose to invade the Georgia Dome for the 11 vs. 14 and 12 vs. 13 doubleheader — a full 48 hours before the 2nd-seeded Wildcats play in the conference quarters.