Does this sound familiar? On Wednesday, Auburn’s defense once again showed up in a huge way and saved the Tigers following another night of issues on the offensive end. The No. 20 Tigers (11-2, 1-0 SEC) took down the Gators (7-6, 0-1 SEC) in a slugfest, 61-58. This was the SEC opener for both teams as the gauntlet begins across a stacked conference.
“That's our team. We've got to win defensively. Offense isn't always going to be there,” said point guard Wendell Green Jr.
The opponent might have been different. The circumstances, an SEC opener, might have been different too, but the script was familiar for head coach Bruce Pearl, Green and the capacity crowd at Neville Arena.
After starting the game on a 7-0 run, Auburn trailed at halftime 26-23 due to an inefficient and ineffective offense. Shooting just 28% from the field, 33% from three and 62% from the free throw line, Auburn bounced back in the second half behind a trio of double-digit scorers, but the first-half woes, including 12 turnovers, was nearly too much to overcome.
The Tigers did limit the turnovers to three in the second half and shot 48% from the floor, despite going 1-of-8 from beyond the arc, but it still came down to the final minute between the Gators and the Tigers.
“Our defense and our rebounding were both elite. That was enough to win. And in the second half, we stopped turning the ball over and beating ourselves,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said.
In the end, it was the heroics of Chris Moore on the defensive end and Green on the offensive end with his game-clinching layup that saved the day for the Tigers, securing the SEC-opening win.
Moore was a bright spot again for Auburn, and while he was quiet on the offensive end with eight points, he was the only Tiger to shoot over 50% on 3 or more shots, and his one block and three steals on defense brought an energy that Auburn needed.
“I thought Chris Moore was so good. He did so many little things,” Pearl said. “If I want to make a statement on what Auburn basketball looks like, I'll keep pointing to Chris Moore.”
While Green and Moore might have saved the day for Auburn, center Johni Broome was Auburn’s most valuable player on both ends of the floor, including the go-ahead layup with just over one minute remaining.
After some growing pains to start the season, Broome has been a consistent force for Auburn, with tonight’s 14-point performance being his seventh-straight in double figures. While his team-leading 14 points and 11 rebounds standout on the stat sheet, his defense of Florida’s Colin Castleton was the difference.
“Coming to Auburn, this was one you have circled on the calendar. He's a great matchup,” said Broome. “The main goal of the game plan was to stop him.”
Castelton has been one of the best big men in the SEC this season and has wreaked havoc on Auburn in previous contests.
“I don't know him well enough to stop him. We had the National Defensive Player of the Year last year, and we couldn't stop him,” Pearl said of Castleton earlier in the week.
With 15.8 points per game this season, along with 7.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, Auburn expected more of the same from Castleton, but John Broome’s physical defense was able to shut down Castleton’s scoring, forcing him to be more of a distributor. He did manage to dish four assists, but Broome limited him to shooting just 1-of-6 and finishing the night with six points.
“Very happy for Johni Broome. Johni knows how to act and feel like the best player on the floor,” Pearl said. “He knows how to prepare that way, act that way, play that way.”
Broome’s dominance on defense carried over to the boards where Auburn had a +12 advantage, including 17 offensive rebounds. It was another hard fought game, but no win comes easy in the SEC and for the Tigers, it is their 26th straight win inside the friendly confines of Neville Arena.
Auburn will continue their SEC slate with a journey to Athens, Georgia to take on the Bulldogs of the SEC East. The matchup, scheduled for January 4, will tip-off at 5:30 p.m. CST from Stegeman Coliseum and will be live on the SEC Network.
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