Welcome back to the Auburn Basketball Review that I began yesterday. We’ll pick things up right where we left off yesterday.
After the win over Vanderbilt, Auburn reached it’s highest place in the polls this season at #8. They welcomed Texas A&M into town. The Aggies had struggled through the first half of the SEC schedule but were capable of beating anybody in the league on any given night. The Aggies you’re seeing in the NCAA Tournament right now is the team we saw in Auburn that night in one of its best showings in SEC play (unfortunately for us). The first half of that game brought an unfortunate injury as Bryce Brown hurt his shoulder on a blocked dunk attempt. He didn’t return to the game. Auburn fell down by 17 early in the second half but slowly made a rally and came all the way back to take a brief 2 point lead. Mustapha Heron stepped up in Brown’s absence and led the Tigers with 28 points. However, a controversial, although correct, blocking foul with 4 seconds left allowed A&M to make the game winning free throw as Mustapha Heron’s 3-pointer at the buzzer fell just short as Auburn lost their only game at Auburn Arena this season, 81-80. Auburn traveled to Athens 3 days later and were without the services of Bryce Brown. Insert Jared Harper. Harper had 24 points and 7 assists as Auburn fans took over Stegeman Coliseum late and saw Auburn earn a 78-61 win.
Valentine’s Day: the one home game I had circled since the schedule was released back in August. John Calipari and his freshmen laden squad came to town for a big-time matchup. While Kentucky was on a 3 game losing streak, it’s still a big deal for Kentucky to come to town. Both teams started cold but Auburn got some momentum late in the first half to go to the locker room up 39-33. Even with a huge wrap around his injured shoulder, Bryce Brown had a great game including a clutch 3-pointer with less than 2 minutes left. Another huge performance in this game came from Anfernee McLemore. Anfernee took this game over in a critical stretch and was the best player on the floor for either side for awhile. Overall, he had 13 points and 11 rebounds and made multiple plays on both ends of the floor which turned Auburn Arena into a frenzy. Auburn also benefitted from Kentucky’s Kevin Knox not attempting a shot in the last 14 minutes of the game (until a meaningless shot in the last 30 seconds). Auburn’s defense was on point that night and won 76-66. Considering how rough the Tigers played at times in that game, it took me awhile to figure out how we won that game. We had a lot of momentum going for us but unfortunately, the season would take a cruel turn in the next outing.
The South Carolina game in Columbia was sadly the turning point in the year. With only 9 players available, Auburn was really fortunate to make it that far into the season with no major injuries. Anfernee McLemore’s devastating leg and ankle injury changed that. McLemore, to me, was the heart and soul of this team. The SEC’s leading shot blocker made his presence known in the middle of paint, despite being just 6’8, his continuous hustle and ability to step out and take the 3 made him a legitimate threat on both sides of the court for Auburn. That injury was a killer to Auburn’s season. Up to this point, many began dreaming of a deep run in March. As for the game, Auburn trailed by as many as 26 in this one and cut the deficit all they way down to 5. But South Carolina held off the rally, 84-75.
The Alabama game: Before the game started, we learned that Mustapha was out for the game due to a stomach virus. There was an uneasy feeling in the Jungle, but I had a good feeling about this game. It reminded me of the first Alabama game when the Tide didn’t have Collin Sexton for that game. I had said in Part I that Mustapha Heron’s dunk against Georgia was the loudest I had ever heard Auburn Arena. Until this game. Auburn got off to a dream 8-0 start in 1:10 with 3-pointers by Jared Harper and Malik Dunbar. The place went nuts. Alabama got into the game and Auburn led 40-35 at halftime. In the second half, Auburn took over. Chuma Okeke was phenomenal that night and his dunk really got the crowd going into a frenzy which stayed that way the rest of the game. Chuma had 16 points and 10 rebounds that night and was the focal part of the offense when Auburn pulled away. Malik Dunbar had his best game of the year too, scoring 14 points and 7 rebounds. And who can forget the sequence at the 4 minute mark of the game? Up 20, Malik Dunbar threw down an awesome alley-oop dunk which was enough cause for celebration.
On the next possession, Bryce Brown missed a 3 but Horace Spencer took the rebound and dunked it home sending the crowd into peak pandemonium! This was the loudest I’ve ever heard Auburn Arena because it felt really good! As good as that dunk was, you realized afterwards that he dunked it on Malik Dunbar, which is funny recalling it now. Charles Barkley surely enjoyed the moment. From there, the party was on and Auburn won 90-71.
That emotional blowout win over Alabama masked the reality of what was to come. Auburn had back to back tough road games and couldn’t stop the 3 ball in Gainesville or the dunk/blockfest that took place in Fayetteville. What was a 2 game lead in the SEC, was gone and the Tigers were tied for 1st with Tennessee going into the regular season finale with South Carolina.
It was an ugly start. About 11 minutes in, Auburn trailed 25-11 and was 2-15 from the field. If Auburn could just get 1 3-pointer to go down, that would get Auburn going. It did. Bryce Brown made 4 3s in the last 5 minutes of the half and took the lead late before an incredible 3 pointer by South Carolina gave the Roosters a 37-35 lead at half. Bryce stayed hot in the second half and put the team on his back. Brown was 8-12 from 3 that day and scored 29 points. With about 2 minutes left and Auburn up 12, confetti was “accidentally” set off. South Carolina got it back to 6 once the mess was cleaned up and you thought, oh no, not like this Auburn. Fortunately, order was restored with Mustapha’s breakaway dunk (the only shot he made that day) with a minute left and a final 3 from Bryce sealed the deal. Auburn held on to win 79-70 and the SEC Championship. Auburn Basketball: SEC Champions, in basketball. Not bad for a team picked to finish 9th in the league and by a certain writer 4-14 in the league. Who realistically saw this being possible at the beginning of the year?
In the SEC Tournament, the Tigers drew a desperate Alabama team that was in a must-win scenario to ensure themselves a spot in the NCAA Tournament. While Auburn played a solid first half, the wheels fell off in the second half. Alabama couldn’t miss a shot. Auburn couldn’t make a shot. Nothing more needs to be said about that game. Still, Auburn was going to the NCAA Tournament.
The Tigers went to San Diego with the goal clearly stated: win 2 games and go to the Sweet 16 in Omaha, Nebraska. Looking at the draw, I thought it was doable but in order to win 2 games, you have to win 1 first. The Charleston game was difficult to watch because in all of my years watching the NCAA Tournament, I’ve never watched one with a team that I’ve been invested in as much as this one. It had its highs and lows and Jared Harper picked a really good time to hit his first shot of the game with a go-ahead 3 with about 1:10 left. Auburn survived and advanced to the Round of 32 where it met Clemson. We all know what happened Sunday night and quite frankly, it’s better that I just not talk about it.
As I watched the last 15 minutes of that game with the score no longer in doubt, I took solace in knowing that this was a season that you and I would never forget. There’s so many great memories from this season to dwell on Sunday night.
I picked 10 of my favorites for everyone to enjoy.
1. Malik’s block against Gardner-Webb.
2. This backdoor cut as Mustapha Heron and Auburn blew out Heron’s home state team before Christmas.
Jared Harper with a sweet back door pass to Mustapha Heron for the throw down over his home state UCONN pic.twitter.com/utjvkjMfvJ— ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (@SkyeUnderwood) December 23, 2017
3. Mustapha throwing it down against Tennessee.
4. One of my personal favorites considering the score at the time and the reaction.
5. Alley-oop to Dunbar in a blowout win over LSU
6. Staph, Whoa! (Even in a loss, this was a nice dunk)
Mustapha rocks the baby to sleep before laying her to bed on a nice reverse dunk pic.twitter.com/VW6JqUgca5— ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (@SkyeUnderwood) February 8, 2018
7. Finally got to see Auburn win a road game in any sport on this day!
Mustapha Heron with the one hand reversal off the backdoor dime from Jared Harper pic.twitter.com/5rcXnripUr— ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (@SkyeUnderwood) February 10, 2018
8. My favorite play/segment of the year. It’s easy to wonder what if Anfernee would have not gotten hurt.
Might be the 30-35 seconds I remember the most from this season. A lot of this because of Anfernee McLemore. pic.twitter.com/lW8XNeKXNG— Will McLaughlin (@wlmcl) February 20, 2018
9. Jared Harper from Harpersville.
Sophomore point guard Jared Harper is the squad’s quarterback. At 5’10” the Atlanta native is usually the smallest guy on the court, but likely the biggest heart. Known for his calm presence and ability to knock down long range 3’s, Harper averages 13.7 points and 5.7 assists pic.twitter.com/RZSe8jOm8m— ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (@SkyeUnderwood) March 15, 2018
10. Horace posterizes Malik!
And there are SO many more moments but these are 10 I recall the most. And while Sunday night was hard to watch, I couldn’t help but be proud of this team and all they've accomplished. This team did you proud Auburn Family!
To all the players, assistant coaches, managers, support staff, Rod & Sonny, thank you all you did this year to make Auburn Basketball great!
Thank you Auburn Jungle for making our student section one of the loudest and raucous in the SEC!
Thank you to all of the Auburn fans that supported this team through tough times and were greatly rewarded with a fun basketball team to support.
And last but not least, Thank you Bruce Pearl! I don’t know if you’ll ever read this coach but thank you for making basketball in Auburn relevant! Thank you for giving people a reason to care about Auburn Basketball! Thank you for all the support you give to the other sports programs on this campus! Your energy has been infectious throughout this campus and I certainly hope that when it’s all said and done, you’ll be our coach for many years to come.
This year was just the beginning. Looking a bit forward to next year, most of this year’s team is expected to return. Danjel Purifoy will be back (after 9 games). If Wiley and Heron return, this might be the SEC’s best team next year. How much fun would that be? I’m so excited thinking about the possibilities. Can’t wait for November when we can do this all over again! War Eagle!