In their season-opening, 23-point win over Morehead State the Tigers played spectacular defense, forcing 17 turnovers and blocking eight shots.
The Tigers never trailed against the Eagles, beginning their 2021-2022 campaign with a dominant win over a team that made the NCAA tournament a season ago.
“I was pleased with the effort and energy,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “That’s the best we’ve played in three weeks.”
Incoming transfer center Walker Kessler had five of those blocks, in what was an all-out block party in Auburn Arena. Auburn only had six turnovers compared to the 17 committed by Morehead State. As a result, Auburn scored 19 points off of turnovers, and controlling the glass allowed them to score 13 second chance points.
“They’re a bunch of pests out there,” said Kessler on the defensive play of Auburn’s guards. “They’re so scrappy.”
Ball security and a balance of scoring shined in Tuesday’s win, with four different Tigers scoring double digits. Pearl noted how he could experiment with new players receiving increased playing time, and eight different players had 15 minutes or more.
“Obviously, I threatened them with their jobs, and sometimes when your job is threatened you respond or you get replaced,” Pearl said. “And they responded well.”
In the first half against the Eagles, Auburn showed why they earned a top-25 ranking in the AP poll to begin the year. It was all Auburn, leading by as many as 29 at one point. The Tigers were simply too much for Morehead State, blocking six shots in the first half and forcing 10 turnovers. The Tigers built a 20-point lead going into the halftime locker room.
“That first 15 minutes, that’s as good a defensive effort we’ve had in a while,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.
The Tigers got off to a slow start in the second half, missing shots and allowing Morehead State to take advantage and make it somewhat of a game. The Eagles outscored Auburn 17-11 to start the second half and got within 14 points, but that quickly changed after the Tigers went on a 10-point run to push their lead out of hand. Several times in the second half, Auburn Arena erupted in cheers from a variety of plays.
“It was like nothing I've ever played in front of before,” said guard Wendell Green Jr. on Auburn Arena. “It was electric. Every time someone scored, you can't hear out there.”
It wasn’t all fun and games in Auburn Arena Tuesday night, as the Tigers had some injury scares on the court. Star freshman Jabari Smith went down in the second half, grabbing his leg and later walked off with a trainer. Later in the second half, transfer guard K.D. Johnson went down after a hard collision under the basket. Johnson was down for a few minutes before getting up and walking with a slight limp.
“K.D.’s got a hard head, so I think he’s got hard knees too,” Pearl said. “I think he’ll be okay.”
Smith returned soon after the Johnson injury, but Johnson did not return in the 23-point win.
The Tigers will look to continue a strong defensive effort against Louisiana-Monroe on Friday. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. in Auburn Arena.