Thursday's game took a few familiar turns for Auburn fans: a solid defensive first half mixed with an offense that was cold from three, an explosion that turned a close game into a big 17-point lead for the Tigers, and that lead disappearing as Auburn’s opponents went on a run. It has been a long road for the Tigers, a 16-3 start to the year was followed by going 4-9 down the stretch and going one-and-done in the SEC Tournament.
“We've played a really tough schedule, and we lost to a lot of teams that were favored and were better than us,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl. “ Even though we've lost some games, I was proud of them for competing. I want them to know that they're good enough.”
Auburn faced another must-win situation on Thursday night, with historic upsets already sparking the madness. The Tigers did not flinch when the three-point shots wouldn’t fall in the first half, and they did not flinch when their 17-point lead turned to a four-point lead in the second half. Auburn took care of business in front of a raucous “neutral site” crowd, knocking out the Iowa Hawkeyes 83-75 and advancing to the second round.
“You've gotta have dudes,” said Pearl on what it takes to win.
Auburn had some of those Thursday night, and none greater than sophomore Johni Broome. Even with an experienced roster of players returning from last year’s historic team, few players have meant as much to the Tigers this season as Broome.
He was exceptional again tonight, scoring 19 points in 31 minutes, along with 12 rebounds and five of the Tigers’ six blocks.
Auburn is 8-2 on the year when Broome gets more than 10 rebounds, and while the Tigers did not win the rebidding battle today, his presence inside helped close the gap.
His presence in the paint forced Iowa to take more outside shots, and the Hawkeyes struggled from deep, hitting just 7-of-27 shots from beyond the arc.
Broome was solid in the second half with 11 of his 19 points, but he got help from Auburn’s bench in the form of K.D. Johnson and Tre Donaldson. The duo combined for 20 of Auburn’s 52 second-half points, and it was a pair of triples from Donaldson that helped spark the 17-point lead for the Tigers.
“He giveth, and he taketh away. And he's been giveth-ing more recently,” Pearl said of Johnson. “Tre Donaldson did not look like a freshman.”
Fellow guard Wendell Green Jr. went just 3-for-10 from the field, but the junior point guard set the program record for consecutive free throws made with 34 straight.
Auburn has never lost in the first round under Pearl, or ever. The Tigers are now 11-0 in Round of 64 appearances and 7-3 in the NCAA Tournament with Pearl at the helm.
The Tigers’ second-round matchup is still to be determined, with the winner of No. 1 Houston and No. 16 Northern Kentucky set to face Auburn on Saturday. The Cougars are favored by 19 as their game tips off later tonight.
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