AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn desperately needed to get its first conference win after back-to-back SEC losses, and that’s exactly how the Tigers played through the final minutes of Saturday night’s game against Ole Miss.
As has been the case in other close games this year, true freshman point guard Jared Harper took control when it counted, and his teammates responded.
Bruce Pearl’s squad brought fans in Auburn Arena to their feet after cutting the Rebels’ lead to three with two minutes remaining. The rest of the game would unfold as it had for most of the day: in a back-and-forth battle.
Harper did everything he could to give Auburn a chance, including fouling out after nailing a 3-pointer to put the Tigers back within one.
In the end, despite all of the improvements, adjustments and veteran moments from Auburn’s youngest players, the Tigers would miss their chance on a last-second look and fall to the Rebels 88-85.
Player of the game
Mustapha Heron: 20 points (6-for-12 FG, 3-for-5 3FG), 4 rebounds, 1 assist
Redshirt freshman Danjel Purifoy drilled a 3-pointer in the opening minute of the game, but it was Heron, the man behind the assist, who would have the bigger day.
Heron had a bit of a slow start against the Rebels. He missed a jumper a few minutes into the game, and only got going after a rebound and once he navigated his way to the rim, drawing a couple of fouls. From there Heron — who’s taken some questionable and maybe forced shots in recent games — was efficient from the field and even added some impact plays on defense.
Though a couple of his mid-range shots wouldn’t fall late, the looks were still good — especially compared to some of the falling-away or far-out attempts through the first two conference games.
Harper made his case to be the best player on the floor late in the game (and quite frankly, by dropping in 18 points in the final 9 minutes, he was) but it was Heron who put the Tigers in position to get the win.
Stat line of the game
Auburn’s newest big man is starting to get the hang of things three games into SEC play.
The 6-foot-11 center scored 6 points and grabbed a career-high 6 rebounds before halftime, which was much needed against the Rebels (Ole Miss is one of the best teams in the conference at staying on the boards).
With the help of Horace Spencer, Wiley played an important part in frustrating and stopping Ole Miss’ Sebastian Saiz. Though the 6-foot-9 forward usually averages around 15 points per game, Saiz only scored 2 in the first half.
The freshman might not be putting up a consistent double-double yet, but he’s getting there — and you can tell. Wiley looks more comfortable on the floor. Better yet, as he has been since he checked into his first college game just a few weeks ago, he’s aggressive and always looking to do more.
It may seem like a little thing, but the way Wiley starts out in home games is significant for this group. Every time Wiley snags a rebound or gets a quick putback basket, Tigers fans seem to get a little more into the game. As is often the case with young teams, the crowd reaction seems to energize the players on the floor.
Wiley finished with 7 points but had his best rebounding game to this point (9 rebounds). The scoring threat and second-chance points Wiley provides the Tigers will be even more significant as Auburn hits the road next week.
Up next for Auburn basketball
The Tigers open a two-game road trip in SEC play on Tuesday night against Missouri, a 5-9 squad that has lost its last six contests. Missouri isn’t projected to win many more games this season, so this is a game Auburn needs to win.
The challenge will be a lot more different next Saturday as the Tigers travel to historic Rupp Arena to take on a Kentucky team that is currently No. 6 in the country. Auburn shocked Kentucky on the Plains last year, but this season’s Wildcats at home are different animals.