KD Johnson

Auburn guard K.D. Johnson celebrates after a play in the first half of Auburn's 115-109 loss to UConn

Entering the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament against steep competition, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl wanted his team to get “punched in the mouth.”

Pearl wanted to see how his team would respond to adversity, and overcoming a 15-point deficit in the Tigers’ 115-109 double overtime loss to UConn gave Pearl something to be excited about. 

“You go to tournaments to play games like this,” Pearl said. “This is like March.”

A new starting five saw Zep Jasper take over as point guard and K.D. Johnson filled in for Wendell Green Jr. The new lineup seemed to be working, as the Tigers mounted a 21-10 lead in the first half thanks to three consecutive three pointers by Green Jr. off the bench. However, the Huskies called a timeout and rallied off a 35-13 run to take a 45-34 lead into the half.

“I put Zep (Jasper) or Wendell or K.D. on the floor – they’re like three Tasmanian Devils out there,” Pearl said. “You want to be the aggressor. UConn typically doesn’t get attacked like that, or pressed like that.”

The game changed on a Walker Kessler block in the second half. Uconn’s Adama Sanogo beat Kessler in the paint, but the 7-foot-1 transfer from North Carolina readjusted and blocked Sanogo’s shot off the glass. Devan Cambridge then hit a three pointer to cut the deficit to single digits, allowing the Tigers to get back into the game. 

“I thought we answered the question about whether or not we’re tough enough,” Pearl said. “We got punched in the mouth, and we punched back.”

Forward Jabari Smith had struggled to score in the first half, but came alive in the second half for Auburn. The freshman from Fayetteville, Georgia scored 12 of his 22 points in the second half, including a corner three with under three minutes remaining to give the Tigers their first lead of the ballgame. 

Johnson’s tenacious play was highlighted throughout the game, but stepped up in both of the overtime periods. The opening tip of overtime was won by the Huskies, but the Georgia transfer jumped on the ball while still in the air and corralled it. Johnson had a team- and career-high 27 points in the loss to UConn, shooting 7-of-16 from the field and 11-of-16 from the charity stripe.

“I’m just trying to do anything to get a W,” Johnson said. “You know, I wasn’t really focusing on anything, I was just trying to get a win.”

Despite playing a tough, physical game the Tigers were not able to keep up with the depth and length of the Huskies, falling in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. The Huskies put together a nine-point lead with under a minute to go in the second overtime period. Auburn continued to battle, and even had a chance to cut the deficit to one possession. A UConn turnover led to an attempted three-pointer by Smith that missed, and was rebounded by the Huskies.

“We competed, we came here to win,” Pearl said. “We're disappointed. I thought we played with great effort and energy. Fairly decent level of toughness.”

Auburn will move on to play Loyola-Chicago, who made the sweet sixteen a season ago and the Final Four in 2018.

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