AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn basketball was done for against Alabama without Anfernee McLemore and Mustapha Heron. The only problem was no one informed Bruce Pearl’s Tigers of that.
Without two of its starters (McLemore suffered a season-ending injury at South Carolina and Heron was ruled out with flu-like symptoms), Auburn basketball never never gave up a lead on its home court.
Freshman Chuma Okeke led the way with a career-high 16 points, but had lots of help from point guard Davion Mitchell (8 points) and Malik Dunbar (14 points), who also had career nights.
That trio got essentially a normal night from starters Jared Harper (21 points, 6 assists) and Bryce Brown (18 points) and routed Alabama to avoid a series sweep.
Auburn will travel to Gainesville this weekend to take on the Gators, but here are three takeaways from the Wednesday night game:
Preparation is key
One of the most striking things about this Auburn team’s historic season is how well Bruce Pearl has prepared his team thus far, and Wednesday night was no exception.
Auburn walked onto its home floor with seven scholarship players and without scorer Mustapha Heron (flu). Auburn Arena was also at its peak in terms of excitement this season. Even so, Auburn came out clicking.
Horace Spencer scored on a solid post move just 13 seconds into the ball game. That bucket was followed by a Desean Murray block on the other end of the court, a Jared Harper 3-pointer and another long connection from Malik Dunbar. Down 8-0, Avery Johnson called a quick timeout to gather his team.
It helped that Auburn came out draining shots, but the Tigers took the floor with a relaxed intensity that was much needed. Auburn was ready for the fight it knew was ahead. Collin Sexton ended the first half with 14 points, but it wasn’t because Auburn wasn’t all over him defensively. The lottery pick simply did lottery pick things.
Another thing that was noticeable against Alabama was the way that Auburn reacted to some bad (or at least questionable) calls in the first half. Spencer was called for a block that looked like it should have been called a charge, for example. However, the center kept his cool and didn’t let anything rattle him. Teammates followed suit. That hasn’t always been the case this season, but it looked like Pearl had prepared his guys to remain calm no matter the circumstances.
Pearl’s teas has been focused since it first took the floor against Norfolk State in November, but down two of its starters against Alabama the focus and preparation was at a whole different level.
It’s the little things
The game that unfolded in Auburn Arena on Wednesday night was one of inches. When an Auburn player made a mistake, Alabama capitalized in a big way, and vice versa. That being said, Auburn did a lot of seemingly insignificant things that allowed the Tigers to hold onto a lead for most of the night.
Chuma Okeke had a quiet first half offensively, but came up with 5 rebounds (2 of them were offensive). The freshman teamed up with Desean Murray and the pair got their hands on a couple of basketballs off the rim that allowed Auburn second chances — and those second attempts meant a lot.
Though the Tigers missed a couple of eases in the first half, they also move the ball well and got some wide open looks, including a couple clean ones for Bryce Brown.
At the end of the night, Auburn had a rebounding advantage (41-35), had been more successful from the charity stripe (77 percent compared to 64 percent) and had made more of its second chances (17-9). Those three stats were significant on a night where things could have easily shifted Alabama’s way.
No hesitation (starting with Chuma Okeke)
Before the mid-week game against Alabama, Chuma Okeke had shown flashes of what he was capable of. The newcomer took it to a whole new level against Auburn’s in-state rival.
Okeke finished his career night with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists. Okeke’s evening illustrated how Auburn has to play from now on with McLemore sidelined.
The 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward has been at his best during his first season when he hasn’t hesitated. If he waits too long to take a shot from behind the arc, he typically doesn’t connect (that happened against Alabama). If he just plays, he’s on the mark. When Okeke stopped thinking and just started playing, he looked like an upperclassmen who’d navigated the SEC for years. He opened things up for fellow freshman Mitchell and arguably Dunbar, too.
As a result, Auburn scored 90 points on the SEC’s top defensive team (the most Alabama had allowed before Wednesday was 81 to Kentucky).
Auburn may run into some obstacles as March nears, but few will be greater than losing McLemore and playing without Heron.
Bruce Pearl’s team is going to have to be prepared, focus on the little things, and keep from second-guessing itself as it closes in on the SEC and then NCAA Tournament.