Don’t let the loss get you down. Auburn was shorthanded without Justin Powell for the second straight game, and was breaking in a new player who missed 72 days of practice before the NCAA finally unpuckered its stupid butthole enough to allow him to play.
Yes, Auburn lost to Alabama 94-90 today at home, but that’s not the story. The team you saw for the first several minutes of the game, and the one you saw at the end of the game is not the team that you’ll see going forward, and the man who took his first dribbles today is THE reason why.
Sharife Cooper made his much-awaited debut after missing every game up until today. His clearance last night a surge for the Auburn fanbase, today his energy was everything for a team playing without its other freshman star. Cooper’s first game stat line? Nothing major.
26 points on 8-19 shooting
9-10 from the foul line
He was nothing short of fantastic, and he was the reason that Auburn stayed with the first-place Tide and led during multiple points down the stretch. If not for some first-game fatigue and a few jitters to start, Auburn likely wins comfortably today.
Alabama began the game with a hot burst from Josh Primo, who hit four three-pointers in the opening minutes, and the Tide led 14-4 a little more than five minutes in. Allen Flanigan picked up the early slack for Auburn, with Cooper taking a breather after the opening frame. Flanigan put together a personal 8-0 run to pull the Tigers within a 14-12 deficit, but Alabama rebuilt a 10-point edge by the 7:07 mark of the first half, with the score at 25-15.
Auburn’s next possession served as the moment the game turned, as Cooper stole the ball from Primo and scooted into the lane for his first points as a Tiger, drawing a foul in the process. Three minutes later, Auburn trimmed the lead to one possession on a pair of free throws from Flanigan, and Cooper knotted the score at 28-28 at the 3:53 mark with another driving layup. Auburn took its first lead of the game on a Devan Cambridge three two minutes later at 33-32, but Alabama put together a small surge near the end of the half to go up 37-34 before Auburn had the final word in the period.
Out of the half, Alabama strung together three consecutive baskets to go up 43-36, but Cooper broke the streak on a free throw line jumper, and the second half was his after that. After a three-point play by Cooper, he then pulled the Tigers within a point by hooking up with J.T. Thor in spectacular fashion.
What was evident off the bat was Cooper’s passing ability. Even when he wasn’t scoring, and taking some time to get into the groove offensively, he was distributing with passes that no Auburn Tiger has ever completed. Really, the only negative in his game today was his 1-7 effort from downtown, but I imagine that he’ll get his eye in from distance, especially at home. He’ll also have more of his game-ready basketball legs underneath him now that he’s played a full contest.
After the alley-oop to Thor, who finished with 15 points and 9 rebounds on the afternoon, Auburn took the lead on a Cambridge transition layup, which was followed by another scintillating lob to Thor and a three pointer from Jamal Johnson to give the Tigers their largest lead at 52-48. However, Alabama answered with a 7-0 run, and the two teams battled back and forth until the Tide created some separation with about seven minutes remaining. They constructed an 82-74 lead with much of the work coming from Yale transfer Jordan Bruner, but Auburn didn’t wilt.
The Tigers worked up a 10-0 run of their own, which included another wild alley-oop from Cooper, this time to Devan Cambridge.
Auburn took an 84-82 edge, and the lead swung to each side over the next couple of minutes, finally sticking with Auburn at 90-89 before Alabama made its final push. A few ill-advised shots down the stretch by Auburn and some good defensive play by the Tide allowed them to take the 94-90 win.
Cooper finished with the game-high 26 points and 9 assists, while Auburn also got 19 points and 8 rebounds from Allen Flanigan, along with 15 points and 9 board from J.T. Thor. Devan Cambridge and Jamal Johnson each added 10 points apiece. Alabama was led by Josh Primo’s 22 and Jordan Bruner’s 20 points.