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February 7, 2013It was a second-half comeback led by Cam Newton against Alabama, only this time it wasn't in Bryant-Denny Stadium. It was in Auburn Arena.
With the 2010 Heisman Winner in the student section leading cheers, Auburn's home crowd fueled a second-half comeback that pushed Auburn past Alabama for a 49-37 victory Wednesday night, the lowest scoring output for Alabama in the 146-game series history.
Auburn coach Tony Barbee said he didn't know Newton was on the sideline. Or else he said would have suited him up for the game.
But junior forward Allen Payne was aware of Newton's presence.
"I hate to admit that I was paying attention to the student section, but I was," Payne said sheepishly. "I think I was the only one that saw it though."
The spark Newton provided Auburn in the second half would have been welcome in the first.
Auburn scored 13 points in the first 20 minutes of play. The Tigers only made three field goals on 23 attempts. Junior guard Chris Denson had made one field goal - and was the leading scorer.
At halftime, Auburn trailed Alabama 23-13. The players, understandably, were down. Losers of six straight games, this game could have easily become No. 7. But Barbee wouldn't let his team roll over.
"We were the ones doubting," Payne said. "[Coach Barbee] came in and said you have to play with confidence. That's the first thing he wrote on the board."
So it was written, so it shall be played in the second half.
Auburn shot over 57 percent as a team in the second period. Senior guard Josh Wallace, who entered the game averaging less than four points per game, scored 11 second-half points. Payne became active on the glass with five rebounds and nine points. Shots that weren't falling in the first half began to fall.
"When you get your coach telling you to play with confidence and be aggressive, that loosens you up a little bit to just go out, play and have fun," Payne said.
With a shortened rotation, Auburn thrived.
Freshman forward Jordon Granger, starting his first game of this season, earned seven minutes. Freshman guards Shaq Johnson, Brian Greene Jr. and Jordan Price totaled 14 minutes.
This game was about the veterans.
"Before me and Frankie [Sullivan] were talking, and we knew it was our last go-round, so we needed to turn it around and finish on a good note," Wallace said. "It's our last time playing Alabama here, and there's no better way to go out than to beat Alabama at home."
Auburn's scoring outbursts are normally led by Sullivan, but tonight the senior guard couldn't shake the effects of his recent slump. After playing over-aggressive in the first half, Sullivan was benched. Mired in a 1-for-13 shooting night, Sullivan could have checked out.
In the first half, he personally created four turnovers including several dives on the floor for loose balls. Sullivan said earlier in the week that he needed to get back to what got him into college in the first place: his toughness on defense.
"The best thing [Sullivan] did tonight was stay engaged defensively," Barbee said. "As I watched the tape, he hadn't been doing that. He did a lot of good things on that end of the floor."
That defensive energy helped Auburn hold Alabama to 37 points, the lowest total against an SEC opponent since the Tigers held Arkansas to 37 points in 2003.
Wallace said the entire team returned to its roots Wednesday night, due in part to Monday's 6 a.m. practice.
"I believe that we had gotten away from our roots, which are fighting and playing defense," Wallace said. "Coach reemphasized that early in Monday's practice, and I believe it showed in tonight's game.
"We practice too hard to come out and play like we did in the first half," Wallace said.
Payne also credited the early practice to Auburn's newfound passion in the second half.
"When you practice, the way that we practice on 6 a.m. on Monday, you start to appreciate the game a little bit more," Payne said. "You start to feel like it means more to you when you go that hard, and you come out and can beat your rival like Alabama."
When the clock was ticking down and Auburn's 36-14 second-half run was complete, Payne walked to the student section to relish the moment.
"I got chills," Payne said. "I'm not gonna lie. How it felt to beat Alabama for the first time for coach - his first win at Auburn against Alabama, it was just a great win all the way around."
Auburn resumes play Saturday at Kentucky at 3 p.m. on the SEC Network