Down by double digits at the half, No. 15 Auburn (16-5, 6-2 SEC) was forced to battle back once again. Despite a furious comeback that cut the 16-point deficit to one, the Tigers, once the owners of the nation’s longest active home winning streak, are now losers of two straight as they fell to the Mountaineers 80-77.
“Disappointing loss, worked pretty hard to battle back,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl. “Last four minutes we didn’t get the defensive stops that we had got in the second half.”
Despite the deficit and a poor first-half performance in which the Tigers shot 40% from the floor and 22% from beyond the arc, Auburn had a chance to tie the game on several occasions, including one last shot to send it to overtime. The ball was in the hands of Wendell Green, Jr., and the junior guard, who struggled throughout the contest, sent up one final three to tie the game, but it was off the mark and time ran out on the Tigers.
“We were down three; I didn’t have any timeouts, which rarely happens,” Pearl said. “Wendell getting a look, I’m ok with that.”
Green went 2-of-10 from the field for nine points, along with five assists and four turnovers. This is his first time scoring under 10 points since the loss to Georgia on January 4.
The comeback might have fallen short, but it was a step in the right direction after another blunder in the first half.
“I thought the togetherness on the bench was the best we had all year,” Pearl said. “In some ways we made progress. We’ve won our last three road games and that one had a chance to be four in a row.”
The Tigers offense could not eclipse 30 points in the first 20 minutes, settling for 29, while the West Virginia offense exploded behind the shooting of Erik Stevenson. The former South Carolina guard had 18 in the first half on an efficient 6-of-9 shooting and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc. Stevenson finished the contest with 31 points and was one of two Mountaineers in double figures.
“Stevenson had his best game. He’s always played well against us,” Pearl said. “He should do more of that.”
This is the third straight game that an opposing player has scored 30 points against the Tigers' defense as Stevenson joins Tyrece Radford and Gregory Jackson.
In the second half, the Tigers needed a spark on offense, and they got it from Johni Broome and K.D. Johnson. Despite the duo combining for just one first half point, they racked up 24 of Auburn’s 48 second-half points during the comeback, along with key stops on the defensive end.
After not making a shot in the first half, Johni Broome hit 7-of-9 in the second half as the Tigers battled back, with five rebounds, three assists and one block.
“We’ve just gotta keep getting him touches,” Pearl said of Broome’s play. “He’s done really well, he's been one of our most consistent players.”
Along with Broome, K.D. Johnson finally found his groove, scoring in double figures for the first time since the loss to Memphis on December 10. After failing to make a shot in his eight first-half minutes, Johnson scored nine on 4-of-6 shooting in 18 second-half minutes, along with three steals including a crucial one in the final minute that gave Auburn a chance to tie it at 78.
“I’m pleased that KD played better. He’s been patient,” Pearl said. “He did get in the gym a little extra this week to work on some things.”
Behind Johnson and Broome, as well as Jaylin Williams who finished the game with 18 points on 7-of-11 shots, Auburn shot 56% in the second half, including 40% from three. The defense also locked in, holding West Virginia to 37% from the field in the second half, but 6 made threes and going 21-of-25 at the charity stripe were crucial wins for the Mountaineers and ultimately led to victory.
For Auburn, the emergence of K.D. Johnson is a positive sign for an offense that needs more shot-creators, and for Bruce Pearl, a moment to build on.
The No. 15 Tigers will travel back down country road for a Wednesday night clash with SEC foe Georgia (13-7, 3-4 SEC). Auburn and the Bulldogs will tip off at 6 p.m. CST on the SEC Network as the Tigers look to avenge their loss in Athens earlier this year and avoid the season sweep.
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