Remember when Auburn went to the Final Four, and then lost a first round draft pick, the two biggest three-point threats on the team, and the squad’s emotional leaders all at once?
Would you think that a team with the shell of previous success could manage a 25-6 regular season, and a second-place finish in the SEC? If your thoughts turned to anything other than pure optimism in Bruce Pearl’s magician-like ways, you need to reassess your priorities and begin to believe.
Auburn went to Knoxville today and just controlled the Volunteers from the start, thanks in large part to Samir Doughty’s 32 points and eight threes, and beat Tennessee 85-63 to end the regular season at 25-6. Today’s stranglehold of a victory was the most complete outing the Tigers had all year in the SEC, especially on the road, and they answered each punch with a stronger counterpunch of their own.
Leading by 17 early in the second half, you couldn’t help but remember the first meeting between these two, when Auburn posted an 18-0 run to erase a 17-point margin and score a huge comeback win. Tennessee made a bit of a run, but the Tigers answered an 8-0 spurt with a 10-3 run and never looked back. Samir Doughty’s 8-13 afternoon from long range led the way, but Auburn’s rebounding took a backseat to no one on this day. The Tigers controlled the glass and won the battle up front with 42 total rebounds compared to Tennessee’s 26. Even the early demonstrations of John Fulkerson didn’t matter, and his floppy antics only garnered what turned out to be meaningless trips to the free throw line.
Auburn ruined the senior day for Jordan Bowden, who scored 17 points but couldn’t hang with Doughty on the other end of the floor. J’Von McCormick and Isaac Okoro each also hit double figures, but the Tigers’ overall shooting was the key to victory. It’s amazing what happens when this team can find a way to hit 50% overall and 43% from downtown while controlling the glass.
What’s perhaps more impressive is the way that Auburn stayed composed. Leading 57-43 after a McCormick three-pointer, Auburn began to give way. In the midst of an 8-0 run, Anfernee McLemore was called for a technical foul after a jump ball, in which he didn’t give the ball back to the official quickly enough. He was T’d up for that. Tennessee shaved the deficit to a 57-51 game, and after coming within five points, Doughty hit another huge three before a 5-0 run from McCormick. Auburn never looked back. This all came while the Tigers had been called for 12 fouls in the second half at the same time that Tennessee had been whistled for only 3. It wasn’t even, and Auburn still persisted and won despite some actions that might have hurt them mentally earlier in the season.
Last year, we got the Kentucky loss to jog Auburn’s psyche heading into March. This year, maybe it was Kentucky and Texas A&M back to back. This was as good of a game as the Tigers could’ve played leading into the SEC Tournament.
Speaking of which, if you’re interested in Auburn’s pursuit of a third straight SEC title, it’ll have to come in Nashville. Auburn earned the double bye last week, but clinched the 2-seed with today’s win and Florida’s loss at home to Kentucky.
That means that the Tigers will be the first game of the Friday night session at Bridgestone Arena, where they’ll play the winner of the 7-10 game between Texas A&M and Missouri. Unfortunately, both of those teams beat Auburn fairly recently, but neither can come close to the Tigers if they play like they did today. Besides, maybe some of last year’s memories in Nashville will linger and give us a moment’s burst of energy when we need it.
If Auburn advances to the semifinals, they’ll play someone from the group of 3-seed LSU, 6-seed South Carolina, 11-seed Arkansas, or 14-seed Vanderbilt. That’s a much more manageable group than the top half of the bracket, featuring Kentucky, Florida, and Alabama. Here’s the full bracket for the tournament starting Wednesday:
Basically, Auburn has a really good chance to defend its SEC Tournament title. If you get through the quarterfinal on Friday night, then you’ll play a team you’ve already beaten. Get to Sunday, and there’s just one team at the top half of the bracket that Auburn didn’t beat this season, and that’s Florida. With the way some of the schools up top are playing, and with Ashton Hagans being a mystery for Kentucky, Auburn may be in the best position to win the tournament. It all starts Wednesday night in Nashville, War Eagle!