AUBURN, Ala. — Bruce Pearl’s 500th win wasn’t lacking in excitement.
The home Tigers held off visiting LSU on Wednesday night in Auburn Arena, leaving their head coach with a key victory and, true to form, a sweat-stained shirt.
With former Auburn hoops star Charles Barkley watching from the baseline for most of the evening, Auburn surged ahead of LSU after poised play from its two point guards and another big night from senior guard T.J. Dunans.
Dunans finished the night with just 12 points, but his full stat line and late-game heroics were once again crucial for the Tigers in the first of this week’s two significant games. Auburn defeated LSU 78-74 and donned orange shirts commemorating Pearl’s momentous win.
Player of the game
T.J Dunans: 12 points (6-of-13 FG), 6 rebounds, 3 assists 1 block, 1 steal in 28 minutes
Throughout the season Bruce Pearl has explained his young team plays better when senior guard T.J. Dunans is productive.
After making his second-consecutive start against LSU, Dunans posted one of those full stat lines coaches love to see.
While Dunans was again relentless in making acrobatic plays to the rim, he was arguably more important in every other way. He nearly doubled his rebounding average (3.4 boards), snagging 6 on the night and dished out more than his usual share of assists, too. Outside of Mustapha Heron, Dunans was on the floor the most for Auburn.
Heading into the weekend, Dunans will be one of the only players to have gone against the Crimson Tide. His upperclassmen leadership will be crucial on Saturday.
Stat line of the game
Austin Wiley: 10 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 2 blocks
The freshman center fouled out in just 12 minutes of play against the Wildcats in Lexington and his absence hurt the Tigers on both ends of the floor.
Whether it was slightly better officiating or Wiley figuring out how SEC referees call games, the big man managed to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble on Wednesday night.
Wiley is still relatively new to the team and probably doesn’t know all the ins and outs of Pearl’s systems. His instincts, however, have been huge for Auburn. He had a couple of put-backs to put the Tigers up on LSU in the first half and continues to find ways to contribute offensively. It’s nothing too fancy just yet, but the simplicity is exactly what the Tigers need.
Perhaps the best thing about Wiley is that since he joined the team in mid-December, he seems to only be improving statistically.
Once again, point guard play from Jared Harper and Ronnie Johnson changed the course of the game for Auburn in what was really a must-win game.
It started with Harper, who pulled up on a fast break for a 3-pointer with about 8 minutes remaining. From there, the home Tigers sped off on a 20-5 run to end the first half.
Johnson kept the momentum going with a couple of key defensive plays — Pearl said earlier in the week the graduate transfer could bring even more than he has been defensively — including a steal that led to an Austin Wiley put back.
Up next for Auburn basketball
Part two of Auburn’s critical week on the Plains continues when Alabama travels to the Plains on Saturday afternoon.
Home court advantage proved true last season when the Tigers defeated the Tide in Auburn Arena, but a loss to Alabama a month later was the beginning of a four-game losing streak.
Alabama has won four of its last five games, taking down Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, LSU and Missouri. The Braxton Key-led Tide aren’t deep, but Alabama has seven players who score regularly.
Whatever happens on the hardwood, the in-state rivalry game is likely to elicit one of the best environments Auburn will play in this season.