AUBURN, Ala. — No. 3 Auburn first celebrated survival, and then the title.
DeWanna Bonner scored 22 points and the Tigers made 9-of-10 free throws over the final 44 seconds to beat Georgia 65-59 on Sunday and clinch at least a share of their first SEC championship in 20 years.
The Tigers (26-2, 11-2 Southeastern Conference) were coming off a 73-70 defeat at Vandy, who lost earlier Sunday at Mississippi to ensure Auburn will claim at least a share of the conference title. The outcome of that game was announced shortly after this one was completed.
“It’s something we worked for all year. It was our goal,” Bonner said. “You can see how happy we were when we found out Vanderbilt lost — no offense to Vanderbilt.”
Auburn can win the title outright with a win next Sunday against Arkansas — which would also complete a perfect home season — or a Vandy loss at Tennessee.
The Lady Bulldogs (15-12, 5-7), who handed Auburn its first loss of the season nearly a month ago, lost their fifth straight game. Georgia is just 1-5 since then but coach Andy Landers’ team flirted with completing an improbable sweep.
“I think that he had them really ready and fired up to play,” Auburn coach Nell Fortner said.
“They came out to win that ballgame. They had lost four in a row but they weren’t playing like a team that had lost four in a row.”
Georgia closed to 54-53 on a basket by Christy Marshall with 2:47 left, but then the Tigers scored the game’s next seven points.
Bonner made just 6-of-16 shots but missed only one of 10 free throw attempts. Whitney Boddie had eight points, nine assists and six rebounds for Auburn.
Alli Smalley added 10 points and made all four of her foul shots in the final minute.
Angel Robinson led Georgia with 17 points and 14 rebounds. Porsha Phillips added 13 points.
The Lady Bulldogs led by as many as five points early in the second half.
Auburn freshman Chantel Hilliard gave Auburn a 54-51 lead with three straight baskets in the post, the final one with 3:05 left. She hit the floor on the other end and was carried off the court with a left knee injury.
“I thought she was a huge difference maker for us,” said Fortner, who indicated the nature of the injury wasn’t yet known.
Marshall’s basket that closed it to one came while Hilliard was writhing on the floor just a few feet away. Georgia didn’t score again until Auburn had the game under control.
Smalley’s first two free throws came after she darted into the lane and rebounded Bonner’s miss from the line.
“It really just came off straight to me,” Smalley said. “They were trying to foul so I just dribbled it back out and went to the foul line.”
Then Trevesha Jackson hit two more and Sherell Hobbs made 1-of-2 to push the lead to eight points.
The Tigers cut their halftime deficit to 29-27 after Bonner was fouled by Ashley Houts on a 3-point attempt with 3.5 seconds left. Bonner hit all three foul shots.
Auburn’s 24 attempts from the line was 15 more than Georgia.
“We were good defensively. Offensively, we executed very well, particularly in the first half,” Landers said.
“I just thought we missed some easy shots in the second half. We missed three or four layups, and didn’t get fouled. Which was probably why we missed them; we were probably trying to keep from getting fouled instead of taking the ball to the hole and daring people to stop us.”