It was a tale of two halves in Tampa, with Auburn surviving a scare and defeating the University of South Florida 58-52.
Despite a first half full of turnovers and missed shots, a strong showing in the second half eventually propelled the Tigers to victory, giving Auburn its first road win of the 2021-2022 season.
“There aren’t many SEC teams playing in an American Conference’s town,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “We did it last year in Orlando – didn’t work out great for us – but you beat a good team on the road, it counts more. This’ll be a win that will help us.”
The first half was rough output for Pearl’s team, trailing by as many as 15 points at one point. It was a cold shooting night in Tampa, with the Tigers going 2 for 12 beyond the arc in the first half and 9 of 29 from the field in the opening 20 minutes of the game.
“There’s a lot of contact out there, and the physicality obviously disrupted us in the offensive end,” Pearl said.
The Tigers were able to go on a 10-0 scoring run in the first half to cut the Bulls’ lead to 33-26 at the half, and went on a 15-0 run late in the second half to take the lead.
“I was glad the way we were able to end the half,” Pearl said. “We were able to cut into the lead so it seemed doable. That’s huge, very important.”
Auburn looked like a completely different team in the second half, with its 15-0 scoring run eventually taking the first lead of the game with 9:51 remaining in the second half. Sophomore guard K.D. Johnson took over for the Tigers, scoring nine of his 15 points off the bench in the second half. A transition three by Johnson put Auburn up by seven, and was a momentum swing in favor of the visitors.
“Just energy,” said Johnson of what the 15-0 run gave the Tigers. “That’s all we needed, just somebody to come out with energy and be physical and get down and do the dirty work.”
The Tigers also had more defensive rebounds in the second half with 16 along with 10 offensive boards. Auburn had nine second chance points in the second half
“We just need to get down there and get those balls, then we go and score,” said Johnson of focusing on getting rebounds in the second half.
A strong defense that was lacking in the first half came to play in the second half. The Bulls were limited to 19 points and shot 27 percent in the second half, a stark contrast from their 33 points and 41.9 shooting percentage in the first half.
“I think our changing defenses bothered them,” Pearl said. “Mixing the pressure with a man and we showed some possessions of zone. Did a nice job of keeping the ball in front of them.”
Pearl credited a strong showing by the Auburn faithful as an influence in the win, giving the Tigers a 3-0 start on the year. Pearl noted that about half of the stadium was supporting the orange and blue.
“It was unbelievable,” said Pearl of the Auburn fans in Yuengling Center. “We had half the people in the building tonight … I’m so grateful to the Auburn family, we don’t get the win without them.”
Auburn will move on to play in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas next week. Its first game will be against UConn on Wednesday, tip-off is at 1:30 p.m.