AUBURN, Ala. — Austin Wiley couldn’t have started his career on the Plains much better than he did Sunday afternoon.
With 12:54 remaining in the first quarter, the 5-star freshman center made his debut against Mercer. As the 6-foot-11 center stepped onto the court, 7,991 fans in Auburn Arena erupted into thunderous and lingering applause, welcoming the newest Tiger to college basketball.
“It meant a lot,” Wiley said. “I even got a little emotional out there. I can’t think about that as the game was going.”
Watching Auburn’s 76-74 victory from Section 117, Vickie Orr, Wiley’s mom and former Auburn women’s basketball standout, also was trying to maintain her poise as her son took the floor wearing her jersey number. Orr’s No. 50 is retired and hangs in the rafters at Auburn Arena. His father, Aubrey Wiley, played for the men’s team from 1991-1994.
“My focus was don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry,” Orr said. “I kind of thought I would, but I didn’t. I think because I did enough of that the last two or three days.”
Wiley enrolled Thursday evening, was cleared the next morning and participated in his first practices Friday and Saturday. It took two seconds, however, for the whirlwind to settle and for the freshman to make his presence known.
The Alabama native was fouled as he received a lob from T.J. Dunans. Wiley went to the line and hit the first of two free throws, scoring his first college point.
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“Coming in I felt comfortable with them,” said Wiley, who played pickup on his recruiting visits. “We know each other’s game so I didn’t come in foreign to the offense or anything. At first I was nervous but as the game started flowing, I started picking it up and got comfortable.”
Less than two minutes later, Wiley was snatching a rebound and calling for the ball down low. The newcomer immediately attracted attention and opened up an inside-out game the Tigers have been lacking.
Bruce Pearl was concerned the quick turnaround would leave Wiley unprepared, but was impressed with his contribution. Following the win, the Auburn head coach said his job moving forward would be to direct his guards how to get the ball inside more — something they haven’t had to do much of yet.
“For him to have picked up on the things he needed to do in such a short period of time is remarkable,” Pearl said. “I thought that potentially his presence would be such a distraction as far as he wouldn’t know where to go or what to do. That could hurt us beating Mercer. That wasn’t the case. His presence helped us. As he continues what to do and where he’s going, you can see what a special player he is.”
In just 15 minutes, Wiley dropped in 9 points, grabbed 3 rebounds and blocked 2 shots.
Wiley played a significant role in the final 45 seconds of Auburn’s thrilling win, too. He made a potential game-winning layup off a Mustapha Heron dump-off pass, which put the Tigers up 71-69.
Then he subbed in with 3.8 seconds left in the game, attracting attention down low as Dunans sank a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Auburn a 76-74 win.
At the Tigers’ postgame press conference, Wiley admitted he didn’t realize he was playing such important minutes at the end of the game.
“I was just trying to get a win,” Wiley said. “But now that I think about it, it’s crazy.”
Orr said her son’s cool demeanor isn’t new or out of the ordinary. Pearl echoed a similar statement, reflecting on Wiley’s journey to Auburn, which included a transfer to an out-of-state high school and extra summer classes.
“Austin tends to handle pressure better than anyone I know,” Orr said. “Just when I think things that have been said are going to affect him it doesn’t. He just either doesn’t listen to it or just focuses and gets the job done. He wanted to come in and make a difference. It wasn’t about how many points, not really even about how many rebounds, as Coach said earlier. He just wanted to win and come in and make a difference.”
Still, Wiley is just getting started. Though he struggled to walk through the arena without a picture or autograph request after the win, he’s not without his critics. Pearl interrupted Wiley’s time with reporters to jokingly criticize his 3 rebounds. Orr sat in on his press conference, too.
“I think he did really well,” Orr said. “There’s always room to grow. I’m like his biggest critic, but we’ll get a chance to talk tonight.”
Wiley will have another chance to battle experienced post players when Auburn faces Oklahoma on Wednesday.
“Clearly, when we start to let Austin see some of the other things that are available out there, he’ll continue to do more,” Pearl said. “But you know what? I don’t think he would even care how many points or rebounds he had. I think he just cares that, in his first game, Auburn won.”