Back on the Plains after a week in the Bahamas, Auburn’s Jabari Smith picked up right where he left off: showing why he’s going to be making a lot of money in a few months.
The 6-foot-10 freshman finished with team-high 20 points, seven rebounds and four assists in the 85-68 win over UCF
“I feel like I’m just playing basketball, really,” Smith said. “I don’t care if I’ve got 2 points or 20. I just want to win.”
Center Walker Kessler chimed in to a similar tune.
“Get. Buckets,” the 7-foot-1 Kessler said.
Smith, who faced some criticism last week for his talk on the court, found himself in some similar situations tonight. The Georgia native was called on a double technical foul with UCF’s Brandon Mahan, and came back to his bench yelling “I didn’t say anything!”
“He hard fouled my teammate, and I just reacted,” Smith said. “It wasn't nothing really, just got us more pumped up and ready to go.”
The reaction by Smith sure did get the Tigers ready to go, as not even 30 seconds later Smith drove down the court and buried a three-pointer to give the Tigers a 47-40 lead. The Tigers wouldn’t look back, going on a nine-minute defensive run without allowing a made UCF field goal until 5:45 remaining in the game.
“I just thought we wore them down defensively,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “And, our depth was a factor.”
Smith turned it on from there, energizing his teammates along with him. From his made three-pointer, the Tigers outscored UCF by 10 points down the stretch.
“It’s contagious,” said Kessler of watching his teammate take over a game. “We all see it, we all feel it and we all turn our motors up.”
Kessler notched his third double-double in four games against the Knights on Wednesday, finishing with 17 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks. The UNC transfer played for 31 minutes in the win, receiving extra playing time with teammate Dylan Cardwell in foul trouble.
When asked what has led to his recent success, Kessler had a pretty simple answer.
“Just being tall and playing hard,” Kessler said with a smirk on his face.
Pearl added his own compliments to Kessler, notably how hard he is on the sophomore.
“I'm Walker's biggest critic,” Pearl said. “Me and his dad. I expect a lot from Walker, I'm probably on Walker as much as anybody – Me and Steven (Pearl). It was good to see Walker control the game on the inside.”
The Tigers seemed to struggle against the press of UCF in the early minutes of the game, but soon adjusted. However, the Tiger guards still ran into problems with the press later in the game. Auburn, who usually presses teams, ran more of a half-court defense in the win over UCF.
“They press a pressing team, but I don't believe in that philosophy,” Pearl said. “Teams that press know how to break pressure.”
Auburn will face off against Yale on Saturday, Dec. 4.. Tip-off is 1 p.m. in Auburn Arena.