UNCA spoils Tigers’ opener

Hang on to your hats Auburn fans it's going to be a long season

For the second time in five days, the Auburn Arena sat in stunned silence as the visiting team rushed off its bench to celebrate in the middle of its brand-new floor.

Monday, it was Division-II Columbus State players rushing the court after two last-second Auburn tips fell short.

Friday, it was UNC Asheville crashing the Tigers’ party after coming from 12 points down to post a 70-69 overtime victory.

This time, it counted.

“Our inexperience showed,” coach Tony Barbee said. “We are what we are. I thought we played hard, for the most part we battled. We’ve got a bunch of guys who haven’t been in that position before.

“It’s the growing pains I talked about.”

Auburn (0-1) sprinted out to a 16-point halftime lead in its first regular season game at the 9,121-seat Auburn Arena, and held a good portion of that lead over the Bulldogs (1-0) for most of the second half.

The Tigers led 60-48 with 3:56 left in regulation before the wheels fell off.

UNC Asheville’s run began innocuously enough, with two D.J. Cunningham free throws.

The Bulldogs added 6 more from the charity stripe, a J.P. Primm 3 and a tip-ins from Cunningham and John Williams, knotting the game at 63 and sending it into overtime.

“We stopped executing, we stopped rebounding. We got soft mentally and physically,” said Kenny Gabriel, who led the Tigers with 18 points and 13 rebounds. “We just weren’t executing. That’s all it was.”

UNC Asheville continued its hot streak in the extra period, with a Williams jumper giving it a 70-65 lead with 3:09 to go.

Auburn had an answer, as Gabriel sank a 3 with 1:57 to go to bring the Tigers within 1.

The Bulldogs missed a 3 with 14 seconds to go, and Auburn had to push the ball up the floor because it was out of timeouts.

Josh Wallace had the ball poked out of his hands and the Tigers couldn’t get a shot up, sending the visitors spilling onto the floor at the final horn.

“When you’re in a close game like that, you’ve got to find a way to fight through it, and tonight we just didn’t,” Gabriel said. “We let go of the lead, and we tried to battle back, but we really couldn’t.”

The young Tigers matched the pre-game pyrotechnics used to help open the arena in the first half.

It just took them a little while. Both teams shot atrociously in the first 8:30, before a free throw and tip-in from Earnest Ross and a dunk from Adrian Forbes sent Auburn on a 25-9 run to end the half.

The Tigers’ lead waffled between 18 and 6 before the Bulldogs put together their final run in the second half.

Matt Dickey led UNC Asheville with 18 points, Primm had 16 — with 13 coming in the second half — and Williams added 10 points and 11 rebounds.

Freshman Allen Payne scored 14 off the bench for the Tigers, Ross had 12 and nine rebounds, and Andre Malone scored 11.

“I talk to this team all the time about not accepting your fate, and not contributing to your own demise,” Barbee said. “We did more down that stretch to contribute to our own demise.

“This whole year is going to be a learning experience. But it’s about changing the culture and not accepting that you’re supposed to lose. That’s why I’m here.”

dmorrison@oanow.com | 737-2568

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