AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn Arena was the loudest it has been all season Sunday afternoon.
The Tigers started off their busy week, during which they’ll trek to Connecticut to face two more tough non-conference opponents, with a back-and-forth game against Mercer. The Bears beat Auburn in a close game last year and kept things interesting once again.
Auburn benefited from the debut of 5-star center Austin Wiley, but as expected, his presence wasn’t a cure all. The Tigers again struggled to find clean looks on offense and from the free throw line, which almost ended up being their downfall.
Heron saved a bobbled inbounds pass and called a timeout, giving the Tigers one last chance for the win with 1.1 seconds left in the game. TJ Dunans drilled a clutch 3-pointer (off a Mustapha Heron inbounds pass) at the buzzer, giving Auburn a 76-74 win.
T.J. Dunans wins it for Auburn at the buzzer. pic.twitter.com/nxG7xuHudb
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) December 18, 2016
Player of the game
Mustapha Heron: 21 points, 7-for-12 FG, 2-for-4 3FG, 3 rebounds
Auburn is not only better when they’re attacking the rim, but they’re better when Mustapha Heron is slashing to the basket. Heron finished with the highest point total of the day (21), but did much more than score.
Heron had a huge stop on defense, forcing a travel, with 1:02 remaining in the game and the score tied at 69. Then the true freshman teamed up with Austin Wiley in the final 30 seconds, driving to the hoop and dropping off a slick dump to the 6-foot-11 center, to put the Tigers up 71-69.
Heron then took back to back trips to the free throw line, where he made two of four free throws to put Auburn up 73-71 in the final 20 seconds. Mercer responded with a drive, earned a foul and went up 74-73 with 3.8 seconds remaining in the game.
After a bumbled inbounds pass, Heron called a timeout and gave Auburn a final chance with 1.1 seconds left. And the Tigers capitalized in the ideal way.
Heron continues to alternate with Danjel Purioy for the role of best player on the roster.
Stat line of the game
The junior’s production dropped off after he scored 9 points in Auburn’s home opener against North Florida. Yet after going scoreless against Texas Tech, the junior has improved statistically in each game since.
Lang kept Auburn in the game against Mercer on Sunday, especially early. The 6-foot-7 guard was 3-for-5 from deep in the first half though the Tigers shot just 33 percent as a team. He finished with 11 points in 23 minutes and recorded one of the highest plus minus ratings on the day.
It remains unclear how much longer Bryce Brown will be suspended, but he wasn’t adding much offensively for Auburn thorough his last seven outings (6-for-36 3FG). If Lang can continue to hit he may be able to keep his starting spot and heighten the Tigers inside-out game.
Key stat of the game
It’s been a problem all season, but the Bears worked Auburn on the boards. Mercer’s guards continually slipped past Tigers to follow their shots and totaled 17 second chance points in the process.
Bruce Pearl’s squad is well aware that they’re undersized, though the addition of Wiley helps matters, but better box outs and more physicality will go a long way.
Following a handful of questionable foul calls throughout the game TJ Dunans tried to pick a Mercer player’s pocket with just under five minutes remaining in the game. The senior picked up a foul in the process and 7,991 fans inside Auburn Arena weren’t happy about it.
For the rest of the game, Auburn fans (who were already a bit rowdy for a Sunday game with a noon start time) were captivated. With students still home for winter break, the usual student section stood for almost the rest of the game.
Auburn remained poised, however, and continued to play up the crowd.
Dunans wasn’t the primary option in the final second, but made the game’s most memorable play, hitting an off-balance 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded for the win.
What’s next for Auburn basketball
Auburn will travel north to face off against Oklahoma (6-4) at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET).
The Sooners are still solid overall, but are nowhere close to the team they were with Wooden Award winner Buddy Hield running things. Still, Oklahoma is deep (8-10 players will get quality minutes) and typically gets good contributions from handful of Sooners, too.
Senior guard Jordan Woodard is a scoring threat (17.6 ppg) who distributes the ball well, but perhaps the most important match-ups will be inside.
Auburn’s young post players (McLemore and Wiley) will have the chance to go against Oklahoma’s Khadeem Lattin. The 6-foot-9 junior and his counterpart Rashard Odomes (6-foot-6, 212 pounds) will score, rebound and bang. It’ll be valuable experience less than two weeks from SEC play.