AUBURN, Ala. — Mustapha Heron was struggling heading into the second half Saturday against Georgia, and Auburn basketball needed him to snap out of it.
So Auburn coach Bruce Pearl drew up the first play of the second half for Heron, the former 5-star guard who was held scoreless before halftime thanks in large part to early foul trouble.
“I wanted him to just set a screen, get a screen and shoot a 3,” Pearl said. “I didn’t care if it was contested or not, I wanted him to shoot it. We had to get him going. He knocked that 3 down, and after that, he was ready to just play.”
That 3-pointer was Heron’s first made shot from downtown in two full weeks. His last one came in an upset win over Arkansas on Jan. 6.
“He said it was going to come to me, so I had to knock it down,” Heron said.
A few minutes later, Heron threw down one of the best dunks the fans inAuburn Arena have ever seen — a mammoth slam through a foul. That gave Auburn the lead, erasing what was a 14-point halftime deficit in what would become a 14-point win for the Tigers.
— Auburn Basketball (@AuburnMBB) January 21, 2018
“I was expecting them to come out hard on the next shot that I’d try to take,” Heron said. “It was a late close-out. I waited for him, and then I kind of went by him. Then I just tried to attack the rim as hard as I could, because I knew the big was going to rotate over. I just tried to finish.”
Heron finished, and he did it with an authority his teammates didn’t even know he had.
“I honestly did not see that coming,” junior guard Bryce Brown said. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t believe what I just saw. I mean, Staph is definitely an explosive player, but I didn’t see that coming. That was amazing right there.”
When the horn sounded on the Tigers’ latest double-digit comeback win in SEC play, Heron had 14 points and a team-high 3 steals in 21 minutes of action. He finished with a plus-26 in plus/minus, which was the second-highest for the Tigers.
“It was just getting the flow in the game,” Heron said. “That was pretty much it. Just being in the game.”
It couldn’t come at a better time for Auburn. While Heron isn’t Auburn’s leading scorer or rebounder, his success has gone a long way toward the Tigers’ success this season.
Heron has been held to single-digits in scoring just three times this season. Two of those games are Auburn’s two losses so far in 2017-18. The other one was a blowout win over Gardner-Webb in which Heron played only nine minutes due to injury.
Heron was fresh off a rough night against Alabama. He just hit 2 of his 7 shots for 5 points, and he turned the ball over four times in the loss. His two quick fouls against Georgia seemed to signal another subpar performance in a rivalry defeat.
That all changed when Heron hit the opening 3-pointer of the second half and found his rhythm again.
“He’s one of our go-to guys, and getting him going helps everybody get going,” Brown said. “We see him get going, so all of us decide to lock up on the defensive end and make plays and hit him in the right spots. … Getting him going was big for us in this win.”
Auburn doesn’t need Heron to score 20-plus points per game in what has been a balanced and deadly offense this season. But the Tigers need him to attack defenses in the flow of the game and be an all-around threat whenever he gets the ball in his hands. Pearl thought Heron did a better job of that after halftime Saturday.
“I would like to see him be more aggressive catching and shooting,” Pearl said. “He is a beautiful shooter, and sometimes he will catch it and just shot-fake it. When he shot-fakes it, sometimes he will settle for what I think is an OK mid-range jump shot. I would rather him shot-fake it, drive it and dunk it. I would rather him shot-fake it, drive it and go get a teammate a 3-ball.”
Pearl would definitely prefer the former, if Heron can do it like he did Saturday.
“When [Georgia’s Derek Ogbeidi] comes over there to block his shot and he throws it down like that — there just aren’t many guys that can do that,” Pearl said. “That is next-level stuff. We could not win the game if Mustapha didn’t come back and accept responsibility, and he did. I am really proud of him for that.”