Auburn earned a huge win Saturday night in the inaugural BHM JAM, but it was not without drama.
As was the case last year, this young Auburn team saw a double-digit lead trimmed down to single digits in the final minutes, despite dominating the majority of the game.
Clutch free-throw shooting from the Tigers put an end to its opponents’ late-game comeback, and Bruce Pearl’s squad survived arguably their biggest game of the season so far.
Auburn beat Middle Tennessee, the nation’s No. 12 RPI team, 76-70 at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama to improve to 9-1 on the season, their best start since 1999.
“It was a very physical game. We played awfully hard and gosh we played well for about 25 minutes," Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. "We hit them in the mouth. I didn't think we would do that because we'd been in finals all week. Our defense, the game plan that we had, the way we guarded the post, the whole thing really frustrated them."
Auburn jumped on MTSU early and led by 17 points at halftime, shooting 48.5 percent from the floor in the first half. The Tigers stayed hot after the break, building a 25-point lead early in the second half, but the Blue Raiders responded with a 20-6 run of their own and knocked down three 3-pointers in the final two minutes to cut the lead down to five points with 17 seconds left.
Auburn, however, made 11 of its last 12 free throws to seal the win.
Sophomores Jared Harper and Mustapha Heron led the Tigers with 16 points apiece. Harper tallied seven assists and Heron, who missed last Saturday’s game with back spasms, added six rebounds and three steals.
"We talked about it all week, coming out and trying to be more physical than them," Heron said. "We knew that Nick King was top five in scoring and we tried to be physical with him. We were just physical at all positions."
King, who was averaging 24.3 points per game leading up to Saturday, was held to 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting, and turned the ball over seven times. Giddy Potts, who was one of four Blue Raiders to foul out, led the team with 19 points. MTSU, as a team, turned the ball over 24 times and were out-rebounded 34-29.
"That was a big focal point for us going into this game was definitely trying to defend and have more energy," Heron said. "We knew whoever had more energy was going to win the game."
Freshman Chuma Okeke and junior Horace Spencer also scored in double-digits for Auburn. Okeke had 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and Spencer had 11 points along with seven rebounds.
Auburn returns to action Tuesday night at 7 p.m. CT against the Murray State Racers.