AUBURN, Ala. — This is supposed to be a column that explains just how Auburn basketball beat Alabama on Wednesday night.
This will not be a column that explains just how Auburn basketball beat Alabama on Wednesday night.
Auburn entered its rematch with a lot of issues. It was four days removed from a season-ending injury to Anfernee McLemore, one of the nation’s top shot-blockers. It had spent the last three days wondering if its second-leading scorer, Mustapha Heron, could overcome a stomach virus. (He wouldn’t.)
With two of its top players still ineligible from an FBI case that rocked the program and college basketball, the Tigers only dressed out seven scholarship players in the rotation Wednesday.
And this wasn’t the same Alabama team that beat Auburn earlier this season. Collin Sexton, who will almost assuredly be an NBA lottery pick in a few months, was playing after missing the first matchup. The Crimson Tide had beaten Oklahoma, Florida and Tennessee since their last meeting and were now firmly in the NCAA Tournament picture.
Alabama was taller — the nation’s 26th-tallest roster, to be exact — and deeper. Just losing by single-digits seemed like it would be an impressive performance heading into the game.
So, naturally, Auburn had more rebounds, blocks and points in the paint Wednesday night in a 90-71 win.
“It’s just special,” Pearl said. “It’s special beyond compare. This team is trying to make history. We have a long way to go, but I can’t deny that what we are seeing is rare. That combination of grit and determination, resiliency, family — it’s all right here.”
Dig into the numbers and try to explain what’s happening with basketball on the Plains this season.
Some little things might make sense — an effective zone defense leading to improved rebounding, a spread-it-out offensive system working when a team is shooting well, a versatile group of players covering for a lack of depth — by themselves.
But they aren’t all supposed to happen at the same time for the same team.
Auburn only had seven players in its rotation and ran 11-man Alabama out of the gym in the second half. The Tigers scored 50 points in the half of heavier legs, tougher breathing and fewer substitutions. They shot greater than 50 percent from the field and were dunking on each other for fun down the stretch.
Yup, Horace Spencer dunked on his own teammate 😂 pic.twitter.com/TlLQAY0FL8
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 22, 2018
Alabama hadn’t allowed more than 89 points in a game this season. The time that 89 happened, it only had three players on the floor for a good chunk of the second half. Auburn torched the SEC’s best defense with its biggest handicaps yet.
This is a team that, when two of its most consistent starters are out, get career-best performances from reserves Chuma Okeke and Malik Dunbar. Okeke, a freshman, posted his first career SEC double-double and completely took over a stretch of Auburn’s monster second half.
The smallest player on the court, 5-foot-10 Jared Harper, outperformed Alabama’s future lottery pick and his former high school teammate. Harper was the game’s MVP at 21 points and 6 assists, even though he was coming off the worst game of his career. Alabama coach Avery Johnson, a former NBA point guard himself, called Harper a “little maestro.”
“Against South Carolina and the last time we played against Alabama, he wasn’t the best point guard on the floor,” Pearl said. “Tonight, he was. You can see the result.”
With undersized Harper and inexperienced Okeke leading the way, Auburn showed again why its a team that defies all common basketball knowledge. Remember the horrible second-half defense last season, the Chuck Person bombshell, the overtime exhibition loss to a Division II school in November?
A team this thin, this short, this far removed from the last time it tasted NCAA Tournament glory shouldn’t be here. It relies too much on the 3-point shot. It hasn’t had a winning SEC record in nearly a decade.
And yet, the Tigers are one win away from clinching an SEC regular season championship — their first since 1999. At this point, Auburn is playing better basketball when things aren’t going its way.
Jared Harper from the LOGO pic.twitter.com/naB6MiNWqP
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 22, 2018
The job isn’t done, as Pearl said multiple times Wednesday night. Auburn has to travel to Florida and Arkansas, two of the bluest bloods in the SEC this side of Kentucky. The Tigers’ final game is against a South Carolina team that defeated them just last Saturday.
“Guys, this is not a time to celebrate,” Pearl said. “This is a time to continue to prepare. We have to find a way to go down to Florida.”
Common sense would say that shorthanded Auburn will have a tough time replicating its win from Wednesday in road environments, without the backing of a rivalry-frenzied crowd.
Common sense wouldn’t have predicted any of this, though.