AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn and Oklahoma didn’t exactly honor the game early in their Birthday of Basketball Classic matchup on Wednesday night.
The two teams combined for 17 turnovers, picked up 19 total fouls and took questionable shots ( a combined 19-for-62 from the field) through the first half. Auburn’s sloppy start, however, was somewhat understandable, especially since head coach Bruce Pearl started four freshmen for the first time since 2005-2006.
Oklahoma was missing their best player and leader Jordan Woodard (17.6 ppg), and Auburn took full advantage.
Led by senior guard TJ Dunans and true freshmen Mustapha Heron and Jared Harper, (who all played better with the addition of true freshman center Austin Wiley) the Tigers were able to clean up their play and pull away from the Sooners to earn perhaps their best win over one of their toughest opponents yet.
Player of the game
TJ Dunans: 21 points (8-for-14 FG), 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 block
Dunans struggled to find his role early in the year. He was often out of control and looked as if he was trying to force tough shots and passes. That hasn’t been the case of late, though.
In fact, the senior, who celebrated his 24th birthday on Wednesday night, seems to have figured things out 11 games into the season.
Just two days after the senior sank a last-second 3-pointer to give Auburn a win over Mercer, the guard had his best game of the year by far, dropping in 21 points, snatching 4 rebounds and dishing out 5 assists.
Dunans was effective on offense, pesky on defense and was composed on both ends from start to finish. He wasn’t affected by Oklahoma’s size and athleticism and kept attacking the hoop, even putting together a few of his own impressive highlights. He also did a great job of finding his teammates and distributing the ball early.
Bruce Pearl has said repeatedly Auburn is better when TJ Dunans plays well and that continues to be true time and time again.
Stat line of the game
Austin Wiley: 6 points, 3 rebounds in 13 minutes
At first glance, Wiley’s stat line isn’t particularly striking. Now, give it a second or third look.
Even after examining his numbers for another minute, it appears the 6-foot-11 center didn’t do anything particularly impressive, right?
Now take this into consideration.
Less than one week after joining the team late, the 17-year-old earned his first college start. Wiley took on veteran Oklahoma players who have consistently contributed this season — and who were present for the Sooners’ national title game appearance last year — and still had success.
Wiley takes up space and provides more options for Auburn on offense and defense. The true (and very new) freshman caught a quick drop-off from senior TJ Dunans early about halfway through the first half without flinching. It was a subtle score but indicated Wiley has been able to adjust and find some chemistry with his teammates just days after his arrival.
While his stats aren’t striking yet, Wiley has already been a game changer. His presence opens things up for his teammates on offense and probably (even subconsciously) gives them more confidence on defense, too.
As Wiley familiarizes with his teammates and Bruce Pearl’s systems (a couple more college starts wouldn’t hurt) the more Wiley is going to help this Auburn squad.
There wasn’t just one specific moment where Jared Harper made a difference, but several. The true freshman point guard was critical as Oklahoma tried to pull off a comeback in the final minutes of the game.
Harper has jump started the Tigers in several games so far this season either by penetrating or hitting from downtown. Against the Sooners, Harper helped by attacking to the rim and being aggressive on offense.
Perhaps most notably, though the point had a tough time with free throws early in the year, he nailed 11-of-12 against the Sooners, including a couple of clutch ones late.
What’s next for Auburn basketball
Auburn has a little more work to do in the Constitution State before the Tigers can return to the Plains.
Bruce Pearl’s team will play the UConn Huskies (5-5) in XL Center on Friday afternoon ( 1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Connecticut has played in several close games so far this season, but has yet to come away with a quality win.
The Huskies have a slight edge in size and experience despite losing veteran guard Terry Larrier to a season-ending knee injury after just four games. Jalen Adams (17.9 ppg) and a supporting cast will try to top the Tigers.