AUBURN, Ala. — There are two ways Bruce Pearl can look at Auburn’s record.
The first, more glaring option is after three SEC games, the head coach’s team has yet to come up with a win. They’ve even thrown away a couple of halftime leads.
The second possibility, the one Pearl prefers, is that his group has enjoyed double-digit wins. The youngest team he’s ever put on the floor has improved and already is concentrating on its Tuesday night matchup at Missouri.
“I’m 10-5,” Pearl said after his team’s 88-85 loss to Ole Miss on Saturday night. “And I’m going to Columbia on Tuesday. That’s how I’m looking at it. I’m 10-5, going to Columbia.”
Auburn fought for and had its chances Saturday night. Junior guard TJ Lang’s potential game-tying 3-pointer clanked off the front of the rim before the final buzzer. Despite the gut-wrenching miss, there were positives to take from the game.
Unlike in Auburn’s initial conference outings against Georgia and Vanderbilt, the Tigers didn’t make things easy on the Rebels.
Spurred again by the clutch play of point guard Jared Harper, Auburn erased the 8-point deficit which existed with just more than three minutes remaining in regulation. Whether he was finagling layups or drawing fouls, Harper was relentless, scoring 16 of the Tigers’ final 19 points.
“Mentally that was tough because there was a stretch where we just couldn’t stop Jared Harper,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “We fouled him three times on 3-point shots it seemed, and he was just splitting us up and making hard shots. We’re up 10 and we’re playing well and they just kept coming and kept coming and kept coming — to the point where they tied the game.”
For the seemingly always-poised Harper, it was simple. Instincts kicked in.
“I was observing on the bench my team was fighting to get us back in the game, I think we were down 8, we were able to fight back,” Harper said. “Coach put me back in the game and put the ball in my hands and I kind of took the game over.”
It was the second time during the evening that strong point guard play sparked Auburn. Graduate transfer Ronnie Johnson entered the game and troubled the Rebels with a couple of mid-range floaters, and also converting a layup as the first half finished.
After struggling to defend skilled big men in the paint, Auburn played better post defense against the Rebels, too. Ole Miss forward Sebastian Saiz had only 2 first-half points before having a better second half, scoring 12 more in the final 20 minutes.
Pearl’s young freshmen leaders — perhaps out of necessity — are taking on the same mindset as their coach. They’ll take note of the loss and identify ways to adjust, but they won’t dwell on it too long. They can’t. There’s not enough time.
“We’re worried about getting the next one,” said freshman guard Mustapha Heron, who finished with 20 points. “The past is the past, but we got better tonight. We’re going to Mizzou with a clear mind and we’re going to go in there and work hard and try to get a win.”
The schedule isn’t going to let up. After the Missouri game, the team travels to Kentucky to face the Wildcats. Pearl and Kennedy both believe the conference has become more competitive. On top of that, opponents are more familiar with each other.
It’s not the most comfortable realm for a team putting four freshmen on the court to start every game. Still, Auburn plans to battle, learn and keep preparing for its next game.
“This is going to be a grind,” Pearl said. “This league is very evenly matched and so teams that win that get too happy will lose and teams that lose that get too deflated, that’ll contribute to losing as well, but we’re getting ready for Missouri, we’re getting ready every night. And we’re laying a foundation.”