Jared Thomas
Auburn forward Desean Murray led the Tigers in rebounding once again and pitched in a strong afternoon from the foul line.

Instant analysis: Auburn claims first place in SEC, nation’s longest winning streak with comeback at MSU

With a week like Auburn basketball had, there shouldn’t be any surprise the Tigers finished it with plenty of drama.

Auburn rallied from what was a 13-point deficit in the second half to beat Mississippi State, 76-68, on the road in Starkville on Saturday afternoon. It was the program’s first win in Starkville since 2009.

The win gave the Tigers sole lead of the SEC standings as the conference’s only undefeated team in league play and preserved the nation’s longest winning streak with West Virginia’s upset loss at Texas Tech earlier in the day.

MORE: How Auburn basketball has made drastic turnaround on defensive end

Auburn bounced back from its worst first half of the season, in which it shot 8 for 30 from the field and had only 3 assists. The Tigers were getting outrebounded by a much taller Bulldogs squad, and their offense was incredibly stagnant.

“We played passively, played like we were on the road,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said on the team’s radio broadcast after the game. “It didn’t look like a team that had won 13 or 14 in a row. We didn’t look like that at all in the first half.”

But Auburn caught fire after halftime, using a hot 3-pointer streak from Bryce Brown to claw back into the game and later take the lead. Brown led with 22 points, followed by Mustapha Heron and Desean Murray with 14 each and Jared Harper with 12 — all of his coming in the second half.

“This was about staying composed and staying together,” Brown said. “I felt like that’s what we did. … We had to play better in the second half. We rebounded better, and we played more together.”

Here are the three key takeaways from Auburn’s second come-from-behind win of the week.

Defense kept Auburn in it

This season, Auburn has been able to beat teams by shooting well and rebounding well above its size. It did neither early in Starkville on Saturday afternoon. Offensively, the Tigers had little ball movement and settled for long shots that turned into quick points for Mississippi State.

But when Auburn forced Mississippi State to play in the half court, it prevented the game from becoming a blowout. Mississippi State couldn’t take full advantage of its extra possessions and shot only 40 percent in the first half. The Tigers made the Bulldogs work hard for their looks early.

Once that continued into the second half and Auburn started hitting shots of its own, it was only a matter of time before the Tigers took control. The Tigers forced 8 Mississippi State turnovers after halftime.

Auburn’s second-half offensive outburst will get a lot of due attention in this game. But the defense prevented this game from getting out of reach.

Auburn basketball-Auburn Tigers-Auburn-Mustapha Heron
Auburn wing Mustapha Heron came alive offensively after halftime. (Jared Thomas)

This offense can’t stay cold forever

Auburn had far too many offensive weapons to have the abysmal half it did Saturday. And whether it was the change baskets or Pearl’s halftime talk, the Tigers had a much better time hitting shots in the second half.

The Tigers made more of an emphasis on zipping the ball around against the bigger Mississippi State squad, which looked a step slower after running so much itself in the first half. That freed up opportunities for Brown and Malik Dunbar to get open looks from deep.

“We got after each other a little bit … we didn’t panic,” Pearl said. “We gave Bryce Brown a chance to get hot, and he got hot. I mean, he really got it going. We went to him, and the guys did a good job of finding him.”

All that success on the outside eventually opened the door for Murray to get chances inside and the team as a whole to draw fouls. That played right into Auburn’s hands, as it has been the best SEC team from the free-throw line this season. Auburn went 25 from 32 at the line, and it made a huge difference down the stretch.

Just win, baby

In a season in which college basketball has few dominant teams, there’s something to be said for the Tigers’ 14-game winning streak. With West Virginia losing Saturday, Auburn is now one of three 1-loss teams in the country. Through two weeks of league play, Auburn is the only SEC team with a perfect record. Losses are happening everywhere.

And yet Auburn, a team that is missing two of its three best players, just keeps winning. Its offensive balance has made it a team that is hard to kill off, even with double-digit leads. For most of the season, Auburn was the team with the consistent rebounding advantage and strong first halves. Now Auburn is winning without dominating the glass and going through horrible opening stretches.

“There were times throughout the game where Bryce carried us or Mustapha carried us or Desean Murray carried us,” Pearl said. “Or Malik’s 3s, or Chuma Okeke making a big and-one, a big bucket. It’s a team effort.”

After pulling off two comeback victories as a ranked team, Auburn proved it belongs in the national conversation in a season filled with parity. Something special is brewing with Pearl’s squad.