The Auburn High basketball team will host rival Opelika on Friday after picking up valuable experience in a pair of holiday tournaments featuring strong fields
Prior to Christmas, the Tigers (10-6) dropped its first two games of the Larry Chapman Classic to Enterprise and Huntsville before rebounding with a low-scoring 44-36 win over 7A opponent Murphy.
Facing the 'big' players of Enterprise and Huntsville is one aspect that will pay off for the Tigers in the future, despite the losses, said Auburn High head coach Chris Brandt.
"That’s what I wanted them to be exposed to was to play teams that were bigger, stronger," he said. "You could tell that they were building confidence through the first two games."
After Christmas, the Tigers took part in the Muscogee County Holiday Tournament, which split games between three venues, including at the home court of the Tigers' opening opponent, Spencer, which already features two wins over Auburn's area rival, Central.
"They’re one of the top teams in the state; they were bigger than us and had already beat Central," said Brandt. "I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. What are we getting ourselves into?’ But we pulled out the victory against them, played probably our best ball of the whole year."
The Tigers edged Spencer 54-51, then dropped a hard-fought game against Hardaway before closing the tournament on a high note with a 63-53 win over Marion County.
"The thing about all six teams that we played was that they were all bigger, stronger, faster than us," said Brandt. "All in all, we ended up 3-3, but I think we really came closer as a team and jelled and played a little bit better than we had in the past."
The Tigers came away from both tournaments knowing that they could compete against any team in the state, said Brandt, who added that the experience gained at the tournaments will pay dividends for the Tigers the rest of the season.
The tournaments and added practice time also helped the Tigers focus more on themselves, as well as get valuable court time for some of the team's more inexperienced players.
"That’s what I try to approach in practice is that we try to eliminate a lot of our little quirks and inefficient things that we do and try to resolve them, and not so much practicing for the upcoming team," he said. "We need to focus more on the stuff we need to polish up. I think by doing that they are buying into what we want to do, and you can see it on the court."
The Tigers are also making progress playing "small-ball," said Brandt, who noted that the team doesn't have the luxury of relying on tall players, like former center Garrison Brooks, to get rebounds.
"I’ve been preaching to them the whole season that it takes all five to get a rebound," he said. "It takes all five on the offensive and defensive glass. And we’re using our speed and quickness against their height. I think they’re realizing what they can and can’t do against bigger, taller kids. We’re just trying to exploit their weaknesses and use our strength."
Brandt also used the tournaments to experiment with the lineup and playing rotation, including bringing usual starter Jay Dye off the bench.
"We are still tinkering with it just a little," said Brandt of the lineup and playing rotation. "I have some kids that I think do a better job coming off the bench, like Jay Dye. He’s been starting with us, but I tried something out because he played really well for us last year and he was kind of struggling at the beginning of the season. But I have him coming off the bench, and he plays most of the game. And he’s played extremely well by doing that. Just finding different stuff like that out.
"It was also just trying to get the younger kids to come along. They’re inexperienced, but they’re being thrown into the fire. It’s shown us who can play and who can’t play."
The Tigers will look to keep the momentum going when they host the Bulldogs (7-8) at 7 p.m. Friday.