After Wednesday’s overtime victory against Mississippi State on the road, Auburn would be able to hang another banner, but there was still work to do. A large part of the goal comes in preventing other teams from being able to hang banners in their arenas, and there was a distinct possibility that two other teams in this league would’ve been able to do that if they had won today and Auburn lost.
With the Tigers entering the final day of the regular season at 14-3 in the SEC, a game ahead of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas (all at 13-4), they needed to beat South Carolina to claim an outright SEC regular season championship.
They delivered at home to finish out the year. 27-4 overall. 15-3 in the SEC. Outright champs alone.
Auburn went wire to wire this season leading the conference standings, taking their third SEC Championship under Bruce Pearl (including the 2018 regular season and 2019 tournament titles). Just like that 2018 season, Auburn beat South Carolina at home in the final game of the regular season and got to celebrate in front of the fans on the Plains.
Like we’ve seen over the past few weeks, Jabari Smith engaged his superstardom and carried the team with 21 points, while also getting a bunch of help from K.D. Johnson’s 18 points. The Tigers led from the jump, and although South Carolina punched hard at times and went on several solid runs, Auburn stayed in front and never wavered in closing out a championship.
At the new Neville Arena, as it was dedicated yesterday, the Tigers got off to a hot start this afternoon. Allen Flanigan opened the scoring with a three, and then a thunderous Walker Kessler dunk on an assist from Jabari Smith led into a three by Kessler, and it was 8-0 in the blink of an eye. After a three from Wendell Green, Auburn led 17-10 at the under-12 timeout.
South Carolina made its biggest push at this point, with James Reese hitting shot after shot, and a three by Erik Stevenson cut the Auburn lead to 24-22 with 7:28 remaining in the first half. However, Auburn took just 39 seconds for Jabari Smith to string together a dunk and a three ahead of a jumper by Johnson to push the lead to 31-22. From the 4:18 mark to the 3:15 mark, there were five consecutive made baskets, with two makes from Dylan Cardwell alternating with scores from Reese, and the run finished on K.D. Johnson’s midrange jumper to put the Tigers ahead 37-27.
Jabari Smith completed a three-point opportunity ahead of a Walker Kessler dunk that built the largest first half lead for Auburn at 45-27, and the Tigers held a 48-31 edge at halftime. To start the second half, Kessler hit a long jumper from the corner, but then South Carolina strung together a 9-0 run to cut the lead to 50-40. Auburn pushed the lead back to 16 points thanks to two scores from K.D. Johnson, but another jumper from Stevenson cut the lead to single digits at 58-49 with 12:49 left to play.
Zep Jasper converted a three-point play and then buried a triple on consecutive possessions, and after a made three from Stevenson, Jabari Smith hit a three plus a foul and Auburn sat with a 70-54 advantage at the nine-minute mark of the game. Four minutes later, Auburn’s lead got trimmed to single digits again with another Stevenson three, but Auburn clinched the game at the foul line down the stretch and cruised in the end to the 82-71 victory.
- Auburn has won 25 games for the fourth time under Bruce Pearl, and won the third SEC Championship under him as well. It’s been said ad nauseum, but the entirety of Auburn basketball history pales in comparison to what Bruce has been able to do. Auburn only won 25 games once in school history (the 1998-99 season), and now it’s becoming the norm.
- There’s not much that can be said about Jabari Smith that hasn’t been said already, but we watched him play his final game at Auburn Arena, and if you didn’t appreciate every single dribble he took this year, you missed out. We may never see a guy with that type of talent ever again on the hardwood, and he’s the type of guy that can take this team to a national championship.
- Today was a great day to see contributions from guys that we haven’t seen much this year. Chris Moore had several great minutes with a couple of solid rebounds, and Lior Berman got back in the game as well. With six days off to rest up, this team should be at as full strength as it’s been all year when we play in Tampa on Friday.
- Bruce Pearl clearly saved some things for the end of the year in terms of strategy, and I’m sure that we’ll see something else as we enter the postseason. The three guard lineup from Wednesday and today threw a different look at both opponents, and it helped with certain types of pressure.
- Even when the offense went on its patented lulls, the defense stood tall. They’ve done it all year long, and that’s what’ll allow Auburn to stay in every single game going forward. Now, the Tigers can work on some things, go to Tampa, and then on to the NCAA Tournament.
Auburn will take its #1 seed at the SEC Tournament into the double bye and won’t have to play until Friday, March 11th. The Tigers will play the winner of the 8/9 game that comes first on Thursday.