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January 2, 2013- -
AUBURN -- Step up.
That simple phrase was one of the many commands written on coach Tony Barbee's dry-erase board in Auburn's locker room as the Tigers prepared to take the court against Florida State Tuesday night.
Allen Payne followed along.
The junior forward finished with a career-high 17 points against the Seminoles, which helped fuel a 78-72 win. Payne's emergence was needed - guard Chris Denson, the team's leading scorer, on Wednesday was diagnosed with a broken foot just days after guard Jordan Price was felled by the same injury.
"Everybody had to do more with those guys out," Barbee said. "He played with great energy and toughness from start to finish. We're going to need more performances like that out of Allen as we head into league play."
Payne said he didn't feel any pressure facing the task of replacing the 23 points per game from Denson and Price.
"No pressure, I've been playing this game for almost 15 years," Payne said. "But I knew I had to be aggressive because two of our best scorers were out. Someone had to step up, and I felt like I the mismatch tonight."
In the first half, Frankie Sullivan had the mismatch.
Auburn's leading scorer had 18 of the Tigers' 35 first-half points and was the only thing keeping Auburn's offense afloat. Still, Sullivan didn't score again until the final minute of regulation. Payne, center Rob Chubb, guard Josh Wallace and forward Noel Johnson picked up the slack to keep the Tigers' attack churning.
"The last two weeks in practice, everybody has been hitting shots, and that's been motivating everyone," Sullivan said. "It starts in practice, and it's starting to show (in games.)"
Wallace, who recorded a career-high five steals, filled the stat sheet with six points, five rebounds and six assists. Playing extended minutes with a depleted guard rotation, the senior point guard knew what he had to do entering Tuesday's game.
"That's just my role for this team," Wallace said. "I'm not going to put the ball in the basket a lot of times, so I have to be a good distributor, be a pest on the ball and help out the bigs rebounding. That's what I've got to do."
Wallace embodies the mantra Barbee has been attempting to instill on a team full of inexperienced, talented youngsters.
"It's one thing I've been preaching to these guys," Barbee said. "It's not whether you run the best offense or the best defense, it's about fighting. And that translates from basketball to life. No matter what happens, there's going to be adversity."
But his team isn't running from the challenge.
"You have two choices," Barbee said. "You can tuck your head and run away, or you can fight. And these guys understood and have been buying into it all year long."
Payne said this win was big on multiple fronts for Auburn. Not only does it give Auburn momentum heading into SEC play, it gives this young team a tangible result of what Barbee has been accentuating in practice.
"One of the biggest things [Coach Barbee] has been trying to teach us is how to win," Payne said. "In practice, we go over a lot of scenarios. We'll play a four-minute scrimmage where the game is tied, and he's trying to teach us how to win. We have a lot of young guys, and it's not easy for them to come in and know how to do that. This is a big win for us."
The Tigers (6-7) begin conference play next Wednesday at home against LSU at 8 p.m.