Without one of its leading 2017 scorers in sophomore guard Mustapha Heron, Auburn needed balanced and persistent scoring from its supporting cast against UAB Saturday afternoon.
Auburn didn’t get much balance, but the scoring was there. In bursts.
Jared Harper, Desean Murray and Bryce Brown combined for 66 points as Auburn (8-1) defeated UAB, 85-80 for the Tigers’ best start since 2011-12 (10-1). For the first 16:26 of the contest, only that trio of Tigers had their names in the scoring column.
“We were able to rotate eight, and you look at the stat sheet, everybody played, everybody contributed,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said postgame.
Harper dropped 13 in the first five minutes after back-to-back heat check three-pointers. He didn’t score again until the 7:39 mark of the second half.
Auburn didn’t exactly need it, as Brown picked up the slack with 27 points on 6-for-9 three-point shooting. Murray quietly executed down the stretch, turning in 18 points and seven boards.
Brown, Auburn’s leading scorer this season, had only six points Wednesday in Auburn’s win over Gardner-Webb. The Stone Mountain, Georgia, product immediately went to work to get back to his scoring ways.
“After I get done, I’m one of the last ones to leave the building, and who’s in the practice gym but Bryce Brown,” Pearl said. “The thing for Bryce is when you’re just a shooter, it’s easy to just shoot. Bryce is trying to be more of a player. The fact that he only had one turnover trying to play-make, Bryce Brown is playing really good basketball.”
Because of Heron’s absence, junior forward Malik Dunbar earned his first start in an Auburn uniform. Although the JUCO transfer didn’t put up gaudy numbers like his teammates, he dominated the glass when it counted.
Pearl said the Dunbar and the coaching staff had a “POW WOW” Tuesday to discuss the junior’s role in the rotation.
“Malik’s been averaging 10 minutes a game, he hasn’t had the role he came here to play,” Pearl said. “I wanted to explain to him that the guys carve out their roles. Malik has been a good leader and a good teammate for us.
“I told him, ‘you’re going to win or lose us a basketball game.’ He told me ‘no way.’ I’m really happy with Malik, and so is the team. It builds that trust that you can count on.”
In the final 1:30 of game time, Dunbar recorded three total rebounds, including two offensive, both of which led to clutch put-back layups.
The junior's late play illustrated Auburn's grit whilst shorthanded in the early season.
“You don’t have to have an S on your chest, but you better represent that AU on your uniform, and I think that’s what the guys are doing," Pearl said.
Pearl had been expressing his concern for Auburn’s size and rebounding ability in conference play, a qualm that was put to rest Saturday, according to UAB head coach Robert Ehsan.
“Offensive rebounding sealed the game for [Auburn],” Ehsan said.
Auburn outrebounded the Blazers on the offensive glass, 14-9.
Coming into the game tied for the nation's fifth-most blocks with 30, Anfernee McLemore made his presence known with a pair of rejections and three steals.
For all that’s made of the up and coming basketball version of the Iron Bowl, Pearl believes that Auburn vs. UAB is a premier matchup in the state as well.
“Just a great rivalry game,” Pearl said. “Fans here in the state get treated by it. It was a really good environment today.”
Auburn stays in the state this Saturday for a neutral-site showdown with Middle Tennessee State, with tip time set for 5 p.m. CT.