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A spirit that is not afraid

SEC struggles continue for Auburn versus Tide

Scott Grayson (#23) covering Alabama player in a match of Auburn and Alabama at Neville Arena on January 8th 2023
Scott Grayson (#23) covering Alabama player in a match of Auburn and Alabama at Neville Arena on January 8th 2023

Depth was a question mark coming into the new season for Auburn women's basketball, but it was confident in the fact that it could turn to one of the best veteran duos in the nation as the freshman class ripened.

Aicha Coulibaly (16.7 PPG) and redshirt senior Honesty Scott-Grayson (15.8 PPG) proved to be everything they were last season and more in Auburn's first 13 games, but once SEC play hit, it all fell apart. This has been a common theme for the Tigers, as they haven't notched a winning record in conference play since the 2018-19 season.

That trend continued versus Alabama in front of the largest crowd for women's basketball this season, as the Tide swept Auburn off the floor in an 88-57 win in which Auburn never held the lead. Alabama, who swept three games with Auburn last season, improved to 13-4 and 2-2 in SEC play, while Auburn fell to 10-6 and 0-4 in SEC play.

Scott-Grayson missed the first three games of conference play, and Auburn lost all three, but the team expected to pick up where it left off once she — one of two seniors on the roster — returned. But on Sunday when she returned to the court in the first quarter, it didn't complete Auburn's dynamic duo. Head coach Johnnie Harris found out the day of the game that Aicha Coulibaly — Auburn's top scorer this season and last — is out with a concussion.

"We had AC, and now we don't have AC," Harris said. "We had to play players out of position. We got a bunch of young players playing; I just have to simplify things for them and make sure- make them better."

Scott-Grayson, who Harris said isn't at full strength, made an immediate impact by dumping an assist to freshman Kharyssa Richardson — who also came off the bench due to struggles in the previous three SEC games — in her first offensive possession. However, she was limited to six points in 17 minutes.

Individual minutes were dispersed fairly evenly among the team, except for senior guard Sania Wells, who was a workhorse on the floor for 32 minutes. The production from her in those minutes was a sort of bright spot in what was a disappointing outcome for Auburn. She splashed a pair of 3-pointers on her way to 13 points, but otherwise, Auburn's shooting night was dry.

Romi Levy (#11) loses possesion of the ball in match of Auburn and Alabama at Neville Arena on January 8th 2023

In opposition to Alabama's 8-for-16 performance from beyond the arc and 57% shooting from the field, Auburn shot 35% from the field and 5-for-16 on 3-pointers. While the Tide cooled down from deep in the second half after a sizzling first half from Hannah Barber and the Tide, they still outscored Auburn 48-20 in the paint while outrebounding the Tigers 39-27.

"We'd let them drive and penetrate, we'd come over to help and then they'd kick it. We just didn't have the rotation down that we were supposed to have," Harris said. "We worked on it in practice, but then again we had [Coulibaly] up until yesterday. We're relying on players that haven't been in this position (before)."

Besides being down a key player, Auburn didn't take advantage of opportunities it created as well as Alabama. Both teams forced 15 turnovers, but the Tide scored 20 points off those turnovers while Auburn converted them to just nine. Alabama also created better looks consistently throughout the night and got to the rim with 17 assists compared to Auburn's eight.

Auburn has lost three of its last four games by double digits, but the other two were on the road at now 15-2 Ole Miss and by 52 at reigning national champion and undefeated South Carolina. But a 31-point throttling by Alabama leaves Auburn questioning how it's going to move forward without its two star players at full health.

Richardson, Wells and Mar'Shaun Bostic provided some offensive life for the Tigers, each scoring in double figures. Freshman Sydney Shaw led the team with five rebounds with nine points while splashing two 3s in the starting effort.

All 10 of Bostic's points came in the second half, and the sophomore guard did it while adding three rebounds, a team-leading three assists and two steals. But her surge that helped the bench to 29 points wasn't enough to even chip away at a deficit that sat at 21 at halftime. Alabama outscored Auburn 51-41 in the second half to secure its first double-digit SEC win of the year. 

The team has to find a way to build on those small bits of individual success. As Harris said, it will take a team coming together to make up for the missed production from Coulibaly and Scott-Grayson.

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It won't have much time to readjust, though. Next on the calendar is undefeated No. 7 LSU in Baton Rouge. While this offers a tough, physical threat, it poses a big opportunity for Auburn to build some confidence in a young, growing team that is forced to find a new identity. 

"I mean, this is what we have, and we got to get them ready to play," Harris said. "(Without key players) the entire game plan changes. So, that was a little tough, but that's just the way it goes. That can happen at any time. Somebody else has to step up, and I gotta get that person ready – or, those people ready. You won't replace (Coulibaly and Scott-Grayson's absences) with one person."

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