The six-foot-one senior guard from Uniontown scored 26 points for the Tigers, who trailed until senior center Rob Chubb finally put the Tigers ahead 44-42 on a hook shot with 7:04 left in the second half.
Sullivan hit 11-20 field goals in 35 minutes of action and gave Auburn fans a scare when he landed on his wrist after being fouled from behind while running the floor in transition in the second half. However, he was soon back on the court as his team pulled away in the closing minutes after being down as many as nine points late in the first half.
"My teammates look to me to go score when we have to (score)," Sullivan said. "That is one of my jobs on the team as a leader. I really don't like taking shots like that (11 of 20 field goal attempts), but it was at the point I had to. In the second half Rob Chubb, Josh Wallace and everybody stepped up, made big throws and played great defense."
Rob Chubb stuffs for the Tigers.
Coach Tony Barbee's comments in the preseason that Sullivan was back to his old self physically were evident on Friday night as he blew past defenders for layups and had the most spectacular play of the night as he slam dunked a putback on a shot missed by Allen Payne.
Sullivan, who was about 80 percent of full speed last year coming off of knee surgery, joked that was probably his best dunk since he was a senior in high school. The guard noted it is "a blessing" to be back in good health again.
However, as Sullivan and Barbee noted the key to the victory for the Tigers was defense. Auburn held IPFW to just 28.8 percent shooting from the field on a night the Tigers hit just 40.7 percent of their field goals.
After opening in man-to-man defense the Tigers switched to a two-three zone and stayed with it as the visitors struggled to effectively score against the zone.
Barbee said he thought the Tigers played well defensively from the start to finish of the game and added, "That is the identity of what we are until we get more comfortable with each other on the offensive end of the floor.
"We held this team to 28 percent, which is a ridiculous number defensively," Barbee added. "That is a good team we played against and the Gaines kid (guard Frank Gaines), like I said coming into the game--you look at his 32 points--the kid could play in our league and start on a lot of teams. He is talented.
"Our identity is always going to be how tough we are and how good we are defensively," Barbee added. "We have got to become a better rebounding team even though tonight we out-rebounded them by seven. They were 15-52 so they missed 37 shots so we have got to be a better defensive rebounding team because there were a lot of defensive rebounds to be had."
Chubb led the Tigers on the boards with 15 rebounds and made it a double-double with 10 points.
Junior forward Payne added 12 points with seven rebounds and three steals. Chubb said Payne's play in the second half helped start the comeback. Auburn outscored the Mastodons 38-23 in the second half after being down 27-23 at halftime.
Commenting on the difference in Auburn's play from the first half to second half, Chubb said, "A.P. ( Payne) came out in the second half and he just sparked us," the senior center said. "He gave us a spark that just lit the fire and we started going. That's exactly what we need, an energy guy, and A.P. is the perfect person to do that."
Allen Payne shoots for the Tigers.
Barbee's newcomers, who had looked good in the exhibition games, spent most of the night on the bench. Jordan Price played 13 minutes, Brian Greene Jr. played 10 minutes, Asauhn Dixon-Tatum was in for eight minutes, Adamu was in for seven minutes and Jordon Granger played just four.
"We all know how good these new guys are, but exhibition games at this level and games that actually count are different," the coach said. "They all know it. We just explained it to them.
"These veterans, and that is why you have veterans, they are expected to carry the load until these new guys come on and catch up with everything we want to get accomplished and how we are supposed to play on the floor," Barbee said.
"Like I told the new guys, the season is a marathon, not a sprint," Barbee pointed out. "That being said, they all know how much we need them and those veterans have made it clear, but I have got to look at them, our team has got look at them, and say they're ready. Tonight they were not ready. The game was moving at 100 miles per hour and they were moving at about 70."
Opening Night Starters: Allen Payne, Josh Wallace, Noel Johnson, Frankie Sullivan and Rob Chubb.
Numbers: Auburn was 3-11 on treys and 14-21 at the foul line with 16 turnovers and 10 steals. The Mastodons were 4-20 on threes, 16-23 at the foul line and turned the ball over 17 times while making 10 steals.
IPFW Coach: Tony Jasick said, "Auburn's zone was effective late and we didn't attack it the way we would like to."
Impressive Visitor: IPFW guard Frank Gaines hit 10-18 field goals and was 3-8 on threes and 9-11 at the foul line on the way to scoring 31 of his team's 50 points. Sullivan said the guard is one of the better players he has competed against as a collegian.
Up Next: The Tigers will travel to Charleston, S.C., for an eight-team tournament. Auburn opens on Thursday at 7 p.m. CST vs. Murray State.