Auburn beat Missouri 89-78 this afternoon on the Plains to finish 2016-17 as the most improved SEC this season. The win was an entire team effort. Six Tigers scored at least 8; Auburn outrebounded Mizzou by 9, 41-32; and Auburn had 16 assists. Auburn is still in the running for the NIT going into the SEC Tournament.
It was Senior Night on the Plains. Auburn honored T.J. Dunans, Ronnie Johnson, LaRon Smith, and Devin Waddell. Due to the transfer-heavy nature of college basketball, Devin Waddell is the only senior who has been at Auburn more than two seasons. Waddell played sparingly this season due to injuries, appearing in only ten games after being a regular contributor as a sophomore and junior. Waddell will leave Auburn with a chemical engineering degree and has a bright future ahead of him.
The other three seniors got the start tonight and, of course, you know them. T.J. Dunans is Auburn's Mr. Everything. He's a great slasher and defender. Auburn just plays better when he's on. Ronnie Johnson has been the spark in Auburn's offense during the second half of the year. He's our best assist man and a very capable scorer. LaRon is the most passionate defender on the team and has the worst looking free shot ever seen in Lee County.
The seniors could have asked for better house guest on their last appearance in the Arena. Missouri hasn't won a road conference game since January 2014, over 1,100 days ago. Put differently, the last time Missouri won on the road, Pitbull's Timber was the biggest song in America; Ride Along was tops at the box office. After tonight, that streak will extend into 2018.
This team, however, has been all about the freshmen. The freshmen have combined for over 100 starts this season. Tonight, would be no different. Mustapha Heron led Auburn with 20 and Purifoy added 13 more on the way to an Auburn victory.
Auburn trailed early, but turned it on quickly. Auburn started the game 0-2 from the field, then hit their next 13 shots to build a 29-19 lead 9 minutes into the first half. T.J. Dunans made it 14-8 wit a great steal in the backcourt followed by a contested jam. It may be the best highlight from the regular season.
Anfernee McLemore actually finished an alley-oop to make it 29-16 Auburn.
The seniors (inadvertently) teamed up for a great highlight with 6:30 to play in the first half. T.J. Dunans stole a cross-court pass out of the sky and started the break. He passed to Johnson who threw an ill-advised lob back to Dunans which was nowhere close. Missouri grabbed the rebound and cleared to a wide-open player behind the defense. LaRon didn't give up on the play, caught the streaking fake Tiger from behind and blocked the shot with both hands, bringing the Arena to its feet.
Auburn extended the lead to 50-30 with a Danjel Purifoy three pointer with 2:30 left in the first half. Missouri fought back and cut the lead to 54-40 at the half.
Auburn came into the game, trying to work or drive the ball into the paint and succeeded. Auburn shot 67.7% from the floor in the first half because so many shots were taken at point-blank range. Seven Tigers had at least five points. Heron was 5-5 from the field and led all Tigers with 12 points. Auburn out-rebounded Missouri 23-13. Smith, Wiley, and McLemore had two blocks each.
Looking at the halftime stats, it felt like Auburn should be up by more. All Auburn fans who have seen the Tigers play this year, felt like the game was a long way from over.
Sure enough, Auburn started the second half cold and allowed Missouri some wide open shots. Missouri cut the lead to eight early before Auburn answered the bell.
Heron buried another three at the 17 minute mark to bring the lead back to double-digits. Ronnie Johnson lobbed a beautiful alley-oop to Wiley to bring the lead to 13. Dunans then hit a three to make it 16 again at the under 16 media time out.
Missouri made another run, reducing the lead to 67-60 at the 13:00 mark. Missouri was able to claw their way back in, in part, due to Auburn's poor free throw shooting. Auburn was 6-13 at this point; Mizzou was 15-18. I'd say that I'd never seen a team so hot from the floor and cold from the stripe at the same time, but I bet we've had a similar stat line three or four times this year.
It was at this time that Auburn's depth started to show. Missouri has a decent starting five, but almost no depth. Auburn's talent level isn't the same as Kentucky's or Duke's but Auburn can play 10 guys with no noticeable drop off in ability. Quietly, and without heroics, Auburn rebuilt the lead. Danjel hit a layup off a drive to extend the lead to 75-60 with 10:30 to play.
Mizzou's comeback hopes took a real blow at the 8:40 mark when Frankie Hughes landed on TJ Lang's foot following a Lang 3 point attempt. Lang hit all three free throws to extend the lead to 81-66. Hughes, who had 22 points already, hobbled to the bench to receive medical care.
By the five minute mark, Auburn had extended the lead to 87-70. The Tigers then held on to win 89-78.
The Auburn win sets up a rematch with Missouri Wednesday in the conference tournament. Auburn enters the tournament at 18-13. A likely first round win will bring Auburn to 19 wins on the year. At that point it gets dicey. Auburn will then likely face Vandy or Ole Miss for a chance at 20 wins and the NIT. With a loss, Auburn will be sweating out the NIT selection show and would likely end up in the CBI.
For all its ups and downs, this Auburn team finished with 18 wins, its second best regular season since the last NCAA Tournament team in 2002-03 and we return four solid freshmen and other contributing underclassmen and recruits next year. For the first offseason in a while, things are looking up on the Plains.