We just couldn’t make it easy tonight, but it got done.
Auburn will hang another SEC Championship banner at the Auburn Arena after an 81-68 overtime victory at Mississippi State in the final road game of the year. It’s the third conference title for Bruce Pearl after the regular season championship in 2018 and the tournament title in 2019.
Jabari Smith led the charge with a sizzling 27 points and 10 rebounds, including a monster dunk to close out overtime and send the Tigers to the SEC Championship celebration. K.D. Johnson rescued Auburn in the extra period with 12 points, and the Auburn defense held Mississippi State to an 0-13 performance from three in getting a huge road victory.
Auburn absolutely controlled the first eighteen minutes of the game, led by Jabari Smith and his perfect first half performance on the way to a 40-28 halftime lead. The Tigers opened the game with a three from Jabari, and the long ball kept falling through the first frame. Zep Jasper’s first three gave Auburn a 10-2 lead at the 14:30 mark, but a few minutes later he hit back-to-back triples to run Auburn’s advantage out to 23-10 midway through the half.
Jabari Smith then turned things on, and scored 9 points in the span of a couple minutes, and Auburn led 39-20 as the clock ticked under the final two minutes of the half. Mississippi State found some life in the closing seconds, and went on a quick 6-0 run to cut a 40-22 lead to 40-28 at the intermission and give the Bulldogs just a bit of hope.
They’d continue with that hope in the second half as the Tigers’ traditional second half lull took center stage and the Bulldogs put together a run. With Auburn unable to grab rebounds and Walker Kessler clearly bothered by an injured shoulder, the Tigers didn’t have the same oomph that they normally could put on the floor. Mississippi State quickly crafted a spurt to pull within a 44-38 deficit after a Tolu Smith fastbreak dunk. Auburn seemed to create a little bit of separation, pushing the lead back to 8 points on a Kessler dunk to take a 49-41 lead with 12:35 to play, but then fouls and turnovers took over.
Auburn couldn’t seem to put the ball in the bucket, or even hold on to it, and a Garrison Brooks jumper with 8:46 to go gave Mississippi State their first lead of the game at 50-49. Moments later, trailing 56-51, Jabari Smith drained a three to pull back within one possession, and then a a three from Devan Cambridge on a wild sequence that included a Wendell Green behind the back pass from his rear end gave Auburn a 57-56 lead. MSU regained the edge with Tolu Smith going to the hoop, but Jabari Smith tied the game at 61-all with a left wing jumper. Smith’s last second shot for the win fell off the front of the rim and we went to overtime.
In the extra period, K.D. Johnson got Auburn’s first bucket to give the Tigers a 63-62 lead, and then followed that up with a right win triple to push the Auburn edge to 66-62 with 3:30 left in the game. After a steal from Wendell Green, K.D. Johnson got fouled on the fastbreak, and buried a pair of free throws to give the Tigers a 68-62 lead.
K.D. wasn’t finished, after a turnover by the Tigers Walker Kessler blocked an Iverson Molinar layup, and Wendell Green tossed a full-court pass to K.D. waiting under the basket. He made the layup and got fouled to give the Tigers a 71-64 advantage midway through the extra period. Jabari Smith hit a jumper over Molinar on the next possession, and then Zep Jasper got fouled at the rim on a fastbreak opportunity, and the foul shots pushed the lead to 75-66 Tigers with 1:29 to go. After another miss by the Bulldogs, Auburn started to get fouled to go to the line, and K.D. Johnson’s two shots pushed the lead to double digits at 77-66 as the Tigers started celebrating. In the end, the Tigers cruised to an 81-68 win with a thunderous Jabari Smith dunk closing the victory out in overtime.
- Jabari Smith is absolutely turning into that dude (as if he wasn’t already), but he’s turning the corner into the killer that Auburn needs at the right time. Obviously, the road atmosphere turned things into a tense night for the game’s outcome, but that’s the last time that Auburn’s playing somewhere that isn’t a home or neutral venue. Jabari scored 27 tonight to follow up the huge outputs over the last couple of weeks, and he’s only going to continue getting more confident with what he can do.
- K.D. Johnson was the closer that we needed. While our life blood is Jabari, K.D. is that shot of adrenaline that we need, and his 12 points in overtime were huge.
- Walker Kessler clearly wasn’t himself tonight, and that shoulder wrap is likely the reason. Auburn will have one more game that they can hopefully not rely on him too much with South Carolina coming to the Plains. After that, the Tigers won’t play for 6 days and can definitely give Walker a good rest.
- There are only a couple of outcomes remaining for this team in terms of the SEC Tournament. They claimed a share of the regular season SEC Championship, and still remain a full game up on Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas, who are all sitting at 13-4 in the league. If Auburn beats South Carolina, they’re the outright champs and will be the 1-seed in Tampa next week. If Auburn loses, then it gets interesting. Tennessee and Arkansas play on Saturday in the last game of the year, and Kentucky gets Florida in Gainesville. Whoever wins the Tennessee/Arkansas game will be 14-4 in the SEC, and both teams would own the tiebreaker over Auburn if the Tigers also lose to South Carolina. Thus, Auburn wouldn’t be the 1-seed in Tampa. We can make it simple though, and just beat the Cocks. South Carolina is now somehow tied for 5th in the SEC (part of that group of six teams at 9-8 or 8-9) after winning five of their last six games. However, the only game against someone of any quality was a 90-71 loss at Alabama.
Auburn finishes up the regular season on Saturday, March 5th with South Carolina coming to town for the final game of the year. Tip-off comes from the Plains at high noon (CST) from Auburn Arena.