Story by Blake Sandlin
A second-half shooting clinic by No. 7 Auburn University helped the Tigers survive a near upset from Murray State on Saturday, Dec. 22.
Despite digging a hole early in the first half, the Racers found themselves in a favorable position at halftime trailing 38-35. However, with a three-point onslaught that has become commonplace for the SEC’s best 3-point shooting team, the Tigers rallied to secure the 93-88 win at home.
The Murray State team that allowed the lowest opponent three-point percentage in the country (21.6 percent) was nowhere to be found against the ranked Tigers. Auburn’s junior guard Jared Harper (10 assists) found shooter after shooter in transition to break the game open to as much as 14 with 8:51 to play, and allowed the Tigers to shoot 8-for-17 in the second half.
Despite the hot shooting, the game was hardly decided even with less than a minute remaining. Down 12 with hope of a win fleeting, the Racers strung together three consecutive turnovers and went on a 9-0 run in 32 seconds, in a wild stretch that almost flipped the script.
With 50 seconds remaining, freshman guard Tevin Brown nailed a three to trim the Tiger lead to nine. After forcing a turnover junior forward Darnell Cowart knocked in a free throw, and immediately after the Racers forced another turnover with 28 seconds left senior guard Shaq Buchanan converted with a dunk on the other end.
More sloppy play from Auburn allowed Buchanan to steal an inbounds pass and sink an open three to make the game 91-88 with 24 seconds to play. The Racers luck would ultimately run out, however, as Harper advanced past half court and was intentionally fouled, thwarting Murray State’s upset bid.
That late push couldn’t erase the collective effort put forth by the Tigers that ultimately led to the win. Five players finished with double figures, with four of them adding at least two three-pointers in the win.
“They’re a really good team,” said Murray State Head Coach Matt McMahon. “They shoot the ball exceptionally well from three. We talked about half their shots were threes. They did the same today; they had some guys step up and knock them down. You’ve got players like Harper, you’ve got to try and contain off the ball screen actions; you’ve got a first-round pick in [Austin] Wiley on the block. You’ve got to offer some help down there.”
Junior guard Samir Doughty led the Tigers with 20 points, while sophomore forward Chuma Okeke and center Austin Wiley each added 17.
The Racers had no answer for Auburn’s post presence, particularly in the first half with Wiley. The Tiger center used his 6’11’’ frame to his advantage by scoring 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting, and five rebounds in the first half alone. Wiley, who was thrust into the starting lineup for the first time as a Tiger, ended his night with a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
“There are a lot of things [that made Wiley difficult to cover],” McMahon said. “He’s six foot 10, 260 pounds, and he’s all muscle. He does a good job sealing for angles. He’s skilled; he can score down there. Then you surround him with four guys who can absolutely shoot the ball from a high level from beyond the arc, and it puts you in some tough spots.”
Despite the top-to-bottom outing from the Tigers, Murray State did find some scoring of its own. Four Racers finished in double-figures. The usual suspects – sophomore guard Ja Morant, senior guard Shaq Buchanan and Brown each did their part by scoring 25, 21 and 19 points. Brown especially had an efficient night, shooting 5-for-7 from three while also adding 10 rebounds.
Yet it was the play of several of the Racer role players that drove this showdown to be as competitive as it was. Cowart, sophomore guard Brion Whitley and freshman forward KJ Williams all combined for 23 of the Racers’ points. Cowart had 13 himself, and added four steals and four rebounds to solidify an all-around effort.
Morant ended his night with a stat line of 25 points, seven assists and eight rebounds against the SEC juggernaut Tigers. After the game, Auburn Head Coach Bruce Pearl had nothing but praise for the young phenom.
“He’s really developed,” Pearl said. “He’s a freak athlete. He’s fast; he’s quick; he’s just a handful to stay in front of. We thought zone would be good, and zone was really good early. Then they kind of got some things figured out, and it was actually our man that was the better defense. I was thinking the zone was going to be able to take it out of his hands.”
The Racers will take time away for the holidays before hosting Bethel University at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 29, at the CFSB Center.
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