By Ken Cross
Throughout the first week of week of SEC play, the Auburn Tigers showed why they are a major player for their first SEC title since the late 1990s as they picked up two wins over No. 23 Tennessee and No. 22 Arkansas to go to 14-1. That mark is the best record for the Tigers since 1999-2000 and the 12-game winning streak is second as West Virginia is first win 14 in a row.
Saturday night’s 88-77 win over the Razorbacks was a night where the top two offenses met and entertained, yet Auburn staked itself to a 47-30 halftime lead and then held off two Razorbacks runs to secure the win.
“I thought we dictated in the first half defensively, and that was the big difference,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, “As far as the week goes, beating two top 25 teams is really about taking advantage of the opportunity. We’re playing good basketball right now. We have nine guys that are playing really well together, so we’re in a good place.”
— Auburn Basketball (@AuburnMBB) January 7, 2018
Mustapha Heron had 17 points as he led five Tigers in double figures while Auburn was at a high-level offensively throughout, but especially when they jumped to a 10-2 lead only 2:22 in and finished the half on a 6-0 run when Desean Murray lay a layup and a stickback for that 17-point advantage.
“Desean in a lot of ways, by putting himself on this team, really improved our locker room,” said Pearl, “I think the four newcomers, by the way they came in, wanted to help. They did not have a ‘here I am, look at me now’ attitude. It was about fitting in. Those guys have done a great job, and our guys have done a great job embracing them.”
Heron was solid throughout and seems to have hit another level with his game. He has averaged around 17 points per game and six boards during the 12-game blitz and joins Murray, Bryce Brown, and Harper as all four averaged double figures in an offense that is the epitome of sharing the basketball and playing for each other.
“We share the ball,” explained Heron, “We give each other good looks and we knock shots down. That’s pretty much it. We are just playing as a unit right now and we look to keep that up the whole season, playing together, playing hard, playing for each other.”
Freshman Chuma Okeke came into the program and has shown leadership and maturity on and off the floor so much that he resembles a seasoned veteran. Okeke had 10 points and six boards in 19 minutes as he hit a pair of key threes int he first half as the second one extended the Tigers to a 41-25 lead with 3:32 until halftime.
“He plays with such confidence, and again, our guys are so easy to root for,” noted Pearl, “He keeps things light and lively. He is going to be a great player. Right now he is a great piece to what we’re doing. He just keeps getting better. He’s not afraid, not afraid, he’s going up there against men and he’s not afraid.”
On Monday, Auburn should be nationally ranked for the first time since 2003. It is what happens when the school and administration commit to a top-rung coach such as Pearl and realize where the program was when he took over. The Tigers won consecutive games against Top 25 teams for the first time since 1986 when the legendary Sonny Smith led Auburn to a win over No.4 St. John’s in the Round of 32 and then a Sweet 16 victory over No. 11 UNLV.
“It puts a bigger target on our head,” commented Pearl, “A win over Auburn is worth way more to the opponent. But our goals are bigger than being nationally ranked sometime in January. This team’s goals are bigger. We’re going to focus on that. I don’t think there is any chance that we become too confident. No chance in that.”