ATHENS — Auburn coach Jeff Lebo gave his team some quick advice after Georgia finally started showing signs of life in the second half.
"He said to stop taking quick shots and that the only way they could come back is if they had more possessions," Tigers guard Tay Waller said. "He was saying, ‘Take smart shots,’ and that slowed us down."
Waller scored 20 points and Korvotney Barber had 11 points with 18 rebounds to help Auburn earn a fourth straight victory in the Southeastern Conference for the first time in six years, 71-59 over the Bulldogs on Wednesday night.
The Tigers (17-9, 6-5) struggled to hold off Georgia despite leading by 27 points early in the second half.
After Quantez Robertson’s layup put Auburn ahead 49-22 with 16:27 remaining, the Tigers slumped on both ends of the floor.
It’s possible that Lebo also wanted to show some respect to interim Georgia coach Pete Herrmann and not run up the score. Herrmann, a 28th-year coaching veteran, recruited Lebo to the U.S. Naval Academy in the mid-1980s, before Lebo decided to sign with North Carolina.
"Coach had us slow it up a little bit, and that’s not our style, really," Waller said. "As you can tell, we let the lead slip away and then with five minutes to go, we had to pick it back up. Then we started back to playing Auburn basketball."
For Lebo, the point was to play consistently, and the Tigers nearly fell short.
"We started out real hot tonight," Lebo said. "We were efficient on offense and defense. We built a nice lead, and you have to give our guys some credit. Georgia got it going on offense in the second half, but I liked the way we responded."
Georgia (10-16, 1-10) never led, but Dustin Ware’s 3-pointer from the top of the key cut Auburn’s advantage to less than 10 points for the first time since the 14:28 mark of the first half.
That long jumper woke up the sparse crowd at Stegeman Coliseum, which is rarely filled and was even farther under capacity as tornado warnings echoed 45 minutes before tipoff.
The Bulldogs twice came within six points in the final minutes, the second time coming on Ricky McPhee’s two free throws with 4:39 remaining.
A four-point possession, coming on Barber’s free throw and a three-point play by Rasheem Barrett, ended the suspense by putting Auburn ahead 69-58 with 58.5 seconds left.
"You know how the home team gets a little momentum going once they start hitting shots," Barber said. "We just kept our composure and fought back and won the game."
The Tigers left with their largest margin of victory in Athens since 1977. Despite hitting just 14 of 29 free throws, they have their first four-game winning streak in the SEC since 2002-03, when a 4-0 start helped propel Auburn to the Sweet 16.
"I liked the way our team handled the momentum swing tonight," Lebo said. "Usually in a swing like that, teams play tight. We did well to stave off their comeback, and it was a good all-around effort for us."
Georgia was coming off a surprising two-point upset of Florida on Saturday, but dismal field-goal shooting in the first half led to its 12th loss in 13 games.
The SEC’s lowest-scoring team, the Bulldogs showed why were ranked 220th nationally when the game started with a 65.7 average. They missed 16 of their first 18 shots, including 1-for-10 on 3-pointers, before Trey Thompkins’ layup made it 35-9.
Herrmann was disappointed particularly to watch senior Terrance Woodbury, who had a career-high 32 points against Florida, finish with just seven points on 2-for-10 shooting.
"I keep telling our guys that we have to have more consistent minutes, work together and trust one another," Herrmann said. "Terrance’s performance tonight explains the mystery of basketball. It is a fact of the game. I tell them that when they miss shots not to get tight. Concentrate on the offensive rebound."
Auburn, which had dropped five of six to the Bulldogs, snapped a three-game losing streak to Georgia and a four-game slide at Stegeman Coliseum.
Waller’s 3-pointer at the 5:27 mark of the first half gave the Tigers their largest lead at 29.
Ware had 14 points for Georgia, which was outrebounded 51-34.