AUBURN, Ala. — Bruce Pearl was confident his young team wouldn’t be overwhelmed in Auburn’s first appearance at Madison Square Garden.
For the first half of the game Monday night, however, the coach was wrong.
After a nine-day layoff, the Tigers showed their youth through the first 20 minutes of play in New York. Though Danjel Purifoy would rally and attempt to lead an Auburn comeback, Boston College tipped in a last-second score, leaving the Tigers dejected.
Auburn’s return to the Plains left the Tigers suffering two more significant losses when Pearl suspended starters Bryce Brown and Horace Spencer following arrests for misdemeanor possession.
Overall, Auburn’s stock will drop after its poor performance in New York. Here’s why:
Multiple players have stepped up and led Auburn in spurts this season. At times, the play of point guards Jared Harper and Ronnie Johnson has kept the Tigers afloat. In other instances, 5-star standout Mustapha Heron ruled the hardwood. But the game against the Eagles wouldn’t have been as close as it was without Purifoy.
- Purifoy, recognized as Auburn’s most pro-ready player on the roster, exemplified qualities of a professional against BC. He started shaky, but Purifoy settled down and started to look more comfortable on the Knicks home court. Once again, Purifoy showcased his passing. After an assist on an easy layup, Purifoy grabbed a few rebounds. Then, his shot started to fall. Purifoy scored 27 points in 36 minutes. He was perfect from the free-throw line — including 2 clutch free throws that gave Auburn the lead with seconds remaining. Purifoy added 5 boards and 2 assists. Though Pearl’s young squad lost the game, it should be a turning point for Purifoy. He will be the go-to player in many situations through the rest of the season.
- Horace Spencer continued to be one of the most capable players on Auburn’s roster against its ACC opponent. His 6-foot-8 frame is really the only size the Tigers have, so his defensive presence was critical against Boston College. The sophomore swatted 6 shots on Monday night (a couple of them still might be rolling down Sixth Avenue) and made the Eagles think twice about coming his way. The Philadelphia native also added 4 rebounds. Spencer’s stock would have risen slightly, but will drop following his suspension. The timetable for his return remains unclear, but if the sophomore figures out how to be consistent on offense and add to his rebounding numbers, his stock could soar.
- The break for finals seemed to affect true freshman Harper significantly. After controlling Auburn’s road win against UAB, Harper struggled offensively on the biggest stage of the season. The 5-10 guard was 2 of 10 from the floor (1 of 6 from beyond the arc) and missed his free-throw attempt. Though Harper dished out 3 assists and picked up 1 steal, grad transfer Johnson performed better on Monday night.
- Brown was Auburn’s leading scorer in its home opener (19 points), but wasn’t providing many points of late (6.9 ppg). The guard was 1-for-8 against the Eagles (1-for-5 3FG) and continued his questionable shot selection. Though he wasn’t hot from beyond the three point line in recent games, Brown was one of Pearl’s best defenders. Losing the sophomore to another guard-dominant team will hurt.
- If Purifoy looked like he belonged in the Garden, then Heron was the best friend who showed up and made himself at home. It took the freshman a while to get going because he took some tough shots (3 of 9 FG, 0 of 2 3-point FG), but he maintained his average (15 points). The 6-5 guard has expressed pride in his rebounding. His mindset, he says, is to hit opponents before they have the chance to knock him around. That was the case against BC. Heron was the team’s leading rebounder (7 boards) and added 1 block.