AUBURN, Ala. — For most of the season, Auburn’s freshmen haven’t shown much emotion. Lots of learning was happening and loads of information was being processed. Poise had been more important.
A rivalry game against Alabama, however, brought out a completely new side of the Auburn Tigers on Saturday afternoon.
Sparked by outstanding play and physicality from freshman center Austin Wiley, the Tigers put together one of their most complete games of the season. Everyone contributed, and really for the first time, the Tigers looked like they were, confidently, figuring everything out.
Freshman forward Danjel Purifoy returned with a solid effort after missing three games with an ankle injury. Graduate transfer Ronnie Johnson provided a key boost off the bench with 17 points. Mustapha Heron found his way in the second half after totaling just 1 point through the first 20 minutes, scoring 14 more after halftime.
And after all of that, Auburn took down the Tide in a dominating way.
Player of the game
After years of watching the hoops version of the Iron Bowl unfold on the hardwood, Austin Wiley was ready to be a part of one. And in his first-ever rivalry game, Wiley made his mark, scoring a career-high 19 points and snatching 9 rebounds. The freshman center did a lot of things that won’t show up on a stat sheet, too.
Perhaps most importantly, he kept his cool after a rough start in the first few minutes. Facing Alabama was something he’d vocal about, even in passing in the arena, and he came out amped up.
Wiley settled down and was an obstacle for Alabama on both ends of the floor, but was the biggest problem with the ball in his hands. Whether he was calling for the ball or chasing offensive boards, Wiley was ready for the ball to be in his hands.
He also affected a lot of plays defensively and though he finished with 9 rebounds, he also got his hands on a lot of balls, even batting a few toward teammates to give Auburn more possessions.
Stat line of the game
Purifoy didn’t start nor did he drop in what he was averaging before suffering his ankle injury (13.7 points per game).
Yet considering Purifoy hadn’t played since the first half of the Ole Miss game (Jan. 7), the redshirt freshman made quite the contribution.
Purifoy stepped onto the court for the first time less than three minutes into the game. He didn’t look hesitant or try to force too much, but he also took reasonable chances defensively.
Purifoy connected from the 3-point line to tie things up as the first half was winding down and then scored on a few key putbacks in the second half. He took some of the pressure off of Auburn’s other freshmen and opened things up for other players (like Mustapha Heron, who scored all but 1 of his points in the second half).
Purifoy finished with the highest plus-minus rating of anyone (+30) in 29 total minutes of play.
What else happened in Auburn Arena
Saturday was definitely a time for hoops. There was standing room only in a lot of places, and it was louder at times in the building than it had been all season. But there was a little bit of football excitement, too.
Just a few hours after football coach Gus Malzahn and the Tigers announced Chip Lindsey as Auburn’s new offensive coordinator, fans got a glimpse of the newest members of the team. That includes, of course, quarterback transfer Jarrett Stidham.
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) January 21, 2017
What’s next for Auburn basketball
Auburn won’t be rewarded with an easy game following its rivalry game. Instead, the Tigers will pack their bags and hit the road for two tough road games.
The Tigers’ first stop will be Tuesday in Columbia, S.C., where Auburn will have to deal with South Carolina (6:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network). Along with Kentucky, the Gamecocks have topped the SEC this season and were 5-0 before facing the Wildcats on Saturday. That’s largely thanks to Sindarius Thornwell (what a name), who’s been a near-continuous highlight film so far this season, averaging 18.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Thornwell missed 6 games earlier this season because of a suspension.
Still, next week could be the perfect time for Bruce Pearl’s group to strike. The Gamecocks could be fatigued after playing at Rupp Arena — not to mention battling the flu in that contest, too.
After that, Pearl’s team will head Saturday to Fort Worth, Texas, where Auburn will take on the TCU Horned Frogs (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU). Before playing Baylor on Saturday, TCU (14-4) had won 3 of its last 5 games in Big 12 play.