Auburn’s bench couldn’t control themselves; they were stunned.
It all started from a Xavier turnover. Horace Spencer, in the game for a fouled out Austin Wiley, lurked as Paul Scruggs backed down the smaller Bryce Brown.
Once Scruggs spun free of Brown, Spencer levitated himself in the air, spiking Scrugg’s baby hook, forcing a shot-clock violation.
Off the turnover, the Tigers got the ball and found themselves in a pick-and-roll situation. The Musketeers have failed to properly defend the screen all season, let alone this game.
Jared Harper dashed off the shoulder of Spencer, the screener, and set his eyes on the rim. He gave a ball fake then took off from about 7 feet out. Harper, as if he was dropped from the sky, dunked all over forward Naji Marshall.
Marshall is 6-foot-7; Harper is 5-foot-10 on a good day.
"That sucker’s going to be on plays of the week at No. 1," said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl. “For a 5-10, 5-11 guard to drive down the lane like that and throw the hammer down, it’s just game over.”
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The Tigers didn't look back in the overtime period as they went on to win the first game of the Maui Invitational, 88-79.
While it’s easy to say Harper powered Auburn to the win with 25 points, six rebounds and eight assists, it was the Tigers’ play on defense that moved them to the next round. The Tigers forced 22 turnovers and were able to capitalize on almost every single one.
Every time the Musketeers surrendered the ball to the Tigers, they pushed it up court, establishing the pace they like to play with and found someone for an open shot.
In order to force those turnovers, Auburn chose to ramp up its ball pressure. For most of the game, Auburn players picked up from above the 3-point line and gave Xavier fits as its offense was disrupted.
Even without a full bench, Pearl elected for a full-court press toward the end of the game. If the Tigers continue on into the tournament, fatigue could play a role, something Pearl was concerned about earlier this week. Today though, it didn’t seem to be on his mind.
On offense, the Tigers were just as deadly. Obviously, Harper shined, but his teammate weren’t far behind. Three others scored in double digits including Bryce Brown, who scored 26.
Going in, how the Tigers would shoot on the road, a problem last year, was a point to watch. Early in the game, it looked like the road woes would continue as they shot 4-for-16 on their first 20 shots. Finally, the Tigers settled in and were able to put the ball in the hoop.
A large part of this was thanks to the team running different variations of pick and rolls. Xavier allows 77 points a game and most of that is because of their screen defense deficiencies.
Austin Wiley constantly took advantage of this. He’d come up to set a screen then, since Xavier guarded so high to prevent threes, slipped the screen and have the paint all to himself. He took six free throws, mostly because the Musketeers had no choice but to foul.
Even though Auburn got the win, it still has its work cut out. Xavier out-rebounded Auburn 42-35. Of those rebounds, 16 were on offense, which lead to 17 second-chance points.
Once the Musketeers stopped turning over the ball they were able to go on runs and get their team back in the game. Auburn’s offense would get stagnant for long periods and the team would settle for bad shots.
As the Tigers advance in this historic tournament field and the level of competition remains high, it’s important to monitor how the team keeps their stamina up. Auburn plays at a high pace and when Pearl only plays eight guys it’s natural to see levels of fatigue.
"This game’s going to be good for us, good for the SEC," Pearl said. "Guys, we have two more like that here; that’s what the crazy thing is.”
The tournament requires three straight days of playing and the Tigers just finished the first with a game that required extra basketball. If they keep their energy up, they’ve proven they can hang with the best.
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