Yesterday, Auburn got just about nothing from the floor general, Jared Harper.
Today, the Tigers got everything from him as he controlled the second half in a 73-64 victory over South Carolina in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. Harper scored 19 of his 27 points in the second half as Auburn pulled away and frustrated the Gamecocks at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. He and Bryce Brown combined for 46 points in the victory as Auburn moves on to face 8-seed Florida in tomorrow’s first semifinal matchup.
Chris Silva was again a huge factor for South Carolina, scored 27 points after a 32-point effort during the regular season meeting. He was nearly-unguardable in the first half, and Auburn struggled to contain him on the defensive end. However, Auburn did a much better job guarding SEC Sixth Man of the Year Hassani Gravett, and only limited him to 5 points.
The first half was a back and forth battle featuring 10 lead changes. Auburn did a much better job of shooting from behind the arc, hitting 8-18 three-pointers, but South Carolina shot 50% from the field and got plenty of opportunities from the foul line, where they went 10-13. South Carolina’s largest lead came when they led by 6 points midway through the half, but Bruce Pearl brought Austin Wiley in for his first action of the tournament. Wiley scored on his first touch, and then sparked the Tigers with good defense on the other end. His presence started a 10-2 run that saw Auburn flip the score and take a 28-26 lead after back-to-back threes from Bryce Brown and Jared Harper.
Auburn finally found a way to play good defense at the end of the half and went into the locker room rebuffing a Gamecock drive to the hoop. Tied at 32, Bruce Pearl turned to Jared Harper to control the second half.
Harper buried a three to tie the game at 42 just moments into the second half, and then he switched his game to attack the rim. Through the rest of the half, Jared would go to the foul line 14 times, hitting 12 of those shots. His three-point play to put Auburn on top 45-42 would give the Tigers a lead that they’d never give up, despite solid efforts from the Gamecocks. Auburn kept working the margin larger and larger, finally opening a 7-point lead on Horace Spencer’s (yes, you heard that right) three with 6:34 to play. Auburn found offense at the free throw line thanks to Harper and Samir Doughty as they opened a double-digit lead for the first time, and then Chuma Okeke closed the door on a massive alley-oop dunk to end it.
Both teams hit 45% overall from the floor, and 38% from three-point range, but Auburn went 18-21 from the foul line, while South Carolina only went 12-18. Aside from Harper and Brown’s combined 46 points, Samir Doughty added 10 points for the Tigers on a very efficient afternoon. The bench production went the way of the Tigers as well, outscoring South Carolina 23-2. Anfernee McLemore and Malik Dunbar started the game for Auburn but failed to score after having good outings yesterday. It just shows that the Tigers’ depth has paid dividends over the first two rounds of the tournament.
Up next, it’s Florida. The 8-seed Gators arrive at tomorrow’s semifinal after beating Arkansas yesterday and then taking down top seed LSU 73-70 on a buzzer-beater three today. Auburn took down the Gators 76-62 at home back at the beginning of February. The winner of tomorrow’s game will be in Sunday’s SEC Championship game, and we’ll see if Auburn can get to its first Championship Game since 2000, when the Tigers lost to Arkansas.
Pack Bridgestone tomorrow and cheer the Tigers on to the title! War Eagle!