The Tulane women’s basketball team could have sent a message Wednesday night at Devlin Fieldhouse.
One day after the school announced a move in 2014 to the Big East Conference, the Conference USA preseason favorite could have defeated Auburn, a tough SEC foe, to finally push Tulane into the national spotlight and maybe garner the Green Wave a few votes in the AP poll.
And by halftime of Wednesday’s contest, Tulane was well on its way to doing that, and emphatically, by posting a seemingly imposing 39-23 edge.
But the wheels came off for the Wave in the second half. Auburn got hot from the floor and tightened its defense to gradually chip away at the Tulane lead before securing a 70-65 victory.
The loss was Tulane’s first of the season, a disheartening one that dropped the Wave to 5-1 and, at least temporarily, spoiled a promising 2012-13 campaign.
Auburn improved to 4-2 with the big road win.
“This was an SEC team, and we’re going to be in the Big East,” said Tulane senior forward Janique Kautsky, who led the Wave with 16 points and was 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.
“Just knowing that we almost had Auburn, this could have been a good win, letting everybody know that we can compete in the Big East.
“But this one got away,” she added. “Hopefully it’ll be the only one that’ll get away.”
Tulane sophomore reserve forward Whitney Bibbins scored 14 points while hauling down a team-leading seven rebounds.
Blanche Alverson and Hasina Muhammad led Auburn with 21 points each, while Muhammad added eight rebounds.
The proceedings began quite well for Tulane. After Auburn took a 5-0 lead, Tulane went on 23-6 run highlighted by 3-pointers on three straight possessions.
Overall, the Wave shot 45.5 percent from beyond the arc and 55.6 percent overall in the first half.
Meanwhile, Auburn got into foul trouble while failing to convert its own free throws and shot 30 percent from the field in the first half.
But the second half began with the reverse. Tulane went ice cold from the field and committed several turnovers, while the Tigers heated up from the floor, got Tulane in early foul trouble and ground the Green Wave attack to a halt.
In all, Auburn scored the first 13 points of the second half and continued to close on the home team, thanks to stellar offensive rebounding — the Tigers had 23 offensive rebounds for the game — and 20 second-chance points over the full 40 minutes.
The Tigers pulled to within one about eight and a half minutes into the second half. The squads then traded baskets and free throws down the stretch, with Tulane constantly clinging to a slim lead and never going more than five up on the Tigers as play gradually got more physical.
Auburn finally tied the game at 56-56 with a little more than four minutes left on a short jumper by Muhammad. Two free throws by Kautsky gave the Green Wave the lead back, but Muhammad tied it up again with a layup with 3:33 left in the game.
Kautsky connected on two more foul shots, and the Tigers committed a shot clock violation. Auburn then picked up its 10th team foul for the half, and Kautsky yet again hit to free throw to give Tulane a 62-58 lead with about two and a half minutes left.
lverson connected on a three before Muhammad stole the ball and broke away for a three-point play, giving Auburn a 64-62 edge with about one and a half minutes left.
Tulane forward Tiffany Dale then missed two free throws with 1:04 left, and a hoop by Auburn’s Tra’cee Tanner boosted the Tigers’ advantage to 66-62 with less than a minute to go.
But Tulane’s Danielle Blagg energized the home crowd by sinking a long 3-pointer to bring the Wave to within one with 29.6 seconds left.
After a 30-second Auburn timeout, Dale fouled Tanner, who hit both free throws to secure a 68-65 Tiger edge.
Auburn forced a Wave turnover, spurring Tulane to foul with 11 seconds left. Auburn guard Najat Ouardad converted both ensuing free throws, sealing Auburn’s five-point victory, sending Tulane to its first defeat of the season and denying the Wave a chance to make a much needed statement on the national scene.
Tulane coach Lisa Stockton said that after managing to break the Tigers’ press and scoring almost at will in the first half, her squad let Auburn out-hustle, out-rebound and simply out-shoot Tulane in the second half.
“It all comes down to the start of the second half,” Stockton said. “That first half was probably the best half of basketball we played all season, but it just seemed like we lost focus in the second half.”
Kautsky said the Wave can do nothing now but regroup, re-energize and learn to step on their opponents’ throats when they’re down. That’s what’s going to impress in the Big East, she said.
“We just have to come out in the second half and put our foot down,” she said.