Tigers streaking into SEC play

Published 10:44 pm Thursday, January 8, 2009

MONTGOMERY — The Auburn Tigers picked a good time to go on a roll.

The Tigers enter Southeastern Conference play Saturday at South Carolina riding a seven-game winning streak, the longest of Jeff Lebo’s coaching tenure, and hoping the momentum carries over.

“It’s always good to come in with some confidence,” Lebo said Thursday. “The game is so much a confidence game.”

Coincidentally, he can point to his tenure as a Gamecocks assistant to support his point. The 1996-97 team struggled early in the season with some embarrassing losses but got rolling and went 15-1 in league play to win the SEC title.

“Earlier that year we lost to UNC-Asheville by double figures,” Lebo said. “We lost to Charleston Southern by double figures at home and at Clemson, which was not particularly good.

“It was all about having confidence. Early in December we didn’t have confidence. When we started to win a few, we played much better because we had some confidence. You play a lot better when you feel good about your team, when you feel good about your teammates, when you’ve had some success.”

Lebo’s previous four Auburn teams had not strung together more than five wins.

The Tigers (10-4) had lost three in a row before the current streak, including an 81-74 loss at No. 16 Xavier. Last year’s team had a similar record (9-5) entering the SEC season, but won only four league games and failed to make the postseason.

Forward Lucas Hargrove doesn’t think the winning streak is a fluke. The stretch includes a 58-56 win over Virginia.

“We have terrific team chemistry,” Hargrove said. “Everybody’s buying into what Coach Lebo’s trying to teach us. I think we’re on a good footing right now.

“In past seasons I think we had players playing well, but now I think we as a team are playing a lot better.”

The wins have come even with guard Quantez Robertson enduring an 0-for-14 stretch in 3-pointers over the streak’s first five games. A 35-percent 3-point shooter last season, Robertson is just 7-for-38 on the season for an undersized team that relies heavily on outside shooting.

“He’s really struggled from 3(-point range),” Lebo said. “We’ve been able to on this stretch overcome that, but we’ll need him to be consistent from 3 when we enter into conference play.

“He’s just struggling. He’s getting a lot of good looks. He’s just not putting the ball in the basket right now.”

The Tigers overall aren’t either from outside, even with the addition of sharp-shooting junior college transfer Tay Waller. Auburn ranks 221 out of 330 teams in 3-point shooting, making only 32.1 percent.

The Tigers might have to improve on that to end a streak of nine straight losses against SEC East teams, dating back to a win at South Carolina on Jan. 31, 2007.

Despite the outcome, that game brings back painful memories for Hargrove. That’s because the Pontiac, S.C., native was a freshman riding the bench and didn’t get into the game with family and friends on hand.

This time Hargrove returns as a starter.

“That game was very, very pivotal in my career,” he said. “When I went back and didn’t play, it hurt me a lot. It gave me a lot of hunger and desire to want to get better and be a better player. This has been a big game on my calendar for a long time.”