Shorthanded Tigers rout Alabama
At halftime of Wednesday night's game, Gus Malzahn and the Auburn football team took the court to receive the ODK, James Foy Sportsmanship Trophy, their spoils for defeating number one Alabama to cap off their regular season. This was Bruce Pearl's last chance to match Malzahn's achievement. Earlier this season, Alabama hosted an Auburn team that was undefeated in conference play. Without star point guard Collin Sexton, the Crimson Tide handed Auburn their first SEC loss of the season 76-71. On Wednesday night, Auburn returned the favor. Without Mustapha Heron and a host of other Auburn players, Bruce Pearl's squad defeated Alabama 90-71.
Just before tipoff, rumors of a Mustapha Heron illness were confirmed, and he was ruled out. With Anfernee McLemore sidelined with a broken ankle, and Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy still embroiled in an NCAA investigation, this shrunk Auburn's rotation of scholarship players down to just seven. But the available players embraced the challenge and put out some of the best performances of the year.
With McLemore ruled out for the year, Auburn was looking to Chuma Okeke for a breakout performance. The freshman phenom delivered, registering his first career double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds. He also set or tied career highs in minutes played, points, rebounds, and blocks. His performance in the second half gives hope that the loss of Anfernee McLemore won't be completely debilitating for this team.
Malik Dunbar was also forced into a larger role with the absence of Mustapha Heron. He was a heavy contributor down the stretch setting season highs in points with 14, and rebounds, with seven.
But Jared Harper may have been the best player on the court Wednesday night, and that's saying something with future NBA lottery pick Collin Sexton starting for Alabama. Harper spent his high school career in the shadow of Sexton, who also attended Pebblebrook High School. Sexton had a decent game, scoring 25 points for the Tide, but also led his squad in turnovers and made just two shots from the floor in the second half.
Harper, on the other hand, led the Tigers in scoring, assists, and steals and played fantastic defense all night. After the game, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl couldn't say enough good things about his sophomore point guard.
"I love his game," Pearl said. "He was terrific tonight. I do love his confidence. He's got great ability. He was the best player on the floor tonight."
The 90-71 victory was made even more impressive when you consider what Alabama has been able to do this year defensively. The Crimson Tide have allowed just 65.6 points per game, best in the SEC, and held opponents to 31 percent on three point shots. Even with a shrunken rotation, Auburn was able to score 25 points more than Alabama's defense averages and sunk 12 three pointers on the night.
The 19 point victory was a confidence builder for the new look Tigers and inches them even closer to their first SEC regular season title since 1999. Auburn next plays Saturday night in Gainesville against the Florida Gators. A win or a Tennessee loss would guarantee Auburn at least a share of the SEC title.