On Groundhog Day, Auburn and Alabama basketball saw their shadows from seasons past. Because for the third straight year in Auburn Arena, a raucous Auburn crowd watched their Tigers easily cruise past the bitter rivals from 155 miles across the state.
Auburn obliterated Alabama 84-63 in front of a sold-out crowd clad in neon orange for Bruce Pearl’s annual “AUTLive Cancer” game, pushing the Tigers’ margin of victory against Alabama inside Auburn Arena to an average of 20 points over the past three seasons.
The 21-point win is the largest in the series for Auburn since 2007, when the Tigers downed the Tide 81-57 at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.
“They feed off the crowd,” said Crimson Tide coach Avery Johnson of Alabama’s recent struggles in Auburn Arena. “They do a good job of playing with a lot of confidence in this building.”
Alabama played a fine second half, being outscored just 36-35. But the visitors from Tuscaloosa let Auburn pick up too much momentum in the opening 20 minutes, namely with two separate first-half runs of 21-2 and 17-0 for the Tigers.
With the deafening roars of Auburn Arena crashing down onto the court, the Tide could do little to stop the bleeding during those stretches — not for lack of effort, though.
“We used some timeouts there,” Johnson said. “Sometimes it’s a little challenging in the first half. Sometimes when they go on a run, you think you’ve got something good then you come down and score and when you don’t it catapults into a big run for them. Give them credit. Whether we had 20 timeouts or whether I should have used another timeout or not, they were a better team tonight.”
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Alabama guard John Petty, who led the Tide in scoring with 18 points on 7-for-14 shooting, said Auburn’s home-court advantage is up there with some of the best in the nation.
“You just got to give credit to them,” Petty said. “They shot the ball extremely well and they had their fans into the game. These are some of the best fans in the NCAA, so just give them credit.”
The victory, which pushed Auburn (15-6) back to .500 in SEC play at 4-4, wasn’t all smooth sailing for the whole 40 minutes, however. Alabama opened the contest with a 7-1 lead as Auburn began 0-for-4 from the floor, including an uncharacteristic air-ball on a jumper from Jared Harper.
Despite the cold start, Bruce Pearl didn’t call timeout. Instead, he called for the crowd to wake up.
After a Harper layup, Pearl raised both hands toward the crowd at the scorer’s table and shouted, “Come on!” Bryce Brown then converted an and-one, Chuma Okeke, Brown and Harper hit back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers, and Auburn’s first offensive explosion was underway.
The run peaked at 21-2 as Auburn hit eight straight from the floor and nine of 10 during that span. Six minutes later, after the Tide cut the lead to as narrow as three, Auburn took off on its second massive run — this one 17-0 to push the lead to 20.
Yes, Auburn shot 52 percent from the floor and 59 percent from beyond the arc, both highs for the Tigers in conference play this season. But Pearl’s squad was getting some of its easier looks of the entire year thanks to tenacious defense.
“It was just great, because we always just preach that we want to turn our defense into our offense,” said Harper, who finished with 19 points and five assists. “We got 13 steals tonight. That's a big part of it.”
During Auburn’s first run, the Tiger defense held Alabama scoreless for 3:30 of game time. Early on, it was Auburn’s prowess on the glass without starting center Austin Wiley and against a lengthy Alabama squad that kept from the Crimson Tide from any easy baskets, allowing that possession’s rebounder to quickly push the ball up to the floor to Harper to set up the speedy offense.
When the second run came around, it wasn’t the rebounds, but the turnovers. During the 17-0 run in the final minutes of the first half, Auburn forced Alabama into seven turnovers in a six-minute span as the Tide were held scoreless for four minutes of game time.
“Just locking into every single possession on defense,” Harper said. “That's what we have to do to be able to win. That's what we were able to do last year to win the SEC championship, so that's what we have to continue this year. We kind of looked back at film of our previous games, and we weren't doing the right things to put ourselves in position to win games. We've been working on that this week, and that starts on the defensive end.”
After allowing an average of 80 points per game in the SEC after their three-game losing streak, the Tigers forced a combined 41 turnovers this week against Missouri and Alabama, scoring 58 points off those giveaways in two games.
Pearl said the takeaways perfectly combated Auburn’s lack of size inside.
“When you’re turning them over, we’re going down the other end scoring, they’re not being able to go pound it inside against us,” Pearl said. “We were able to turn Alabama over tonight without extending too much, which I think was very important. Our ball-screen defense was good.”
The second half began where the first left off as Alabama had three turnovers in the first three minutes. As Johnson put it, that’s when things began to “catapult.”
As Samir Doughty was picking pockets on back-to-back possessions and Okeke was pulling in offensive rebounds with one hand, Auburn was playing in a different gear than the Crimson Tide.
“I thought the kids were engaged” Pearl said. “That's the closest we've looked to the kind of Auburn basketball I like to see.”
As the clock ticked away and Auburn led by as many as 26, the home crowd was as energetic as if the game was down to the last possession.
And the Tigers were giving them every reason to be. Brown, who now averages 20 points per game in SEC play, hit on three of his four second-half attempts from 3-point range to give him 23 for the game. Brown joins Tennessee's Grant Williams (21.1 points per game) as the only players average 20-plus in league play this season.
As the quick hands of Auburn continued to frustrate the Tide, the Tigers were able to consistently rip the ball away in the open floor.
That led to the two most impressive individual plays of the night: A ferocious, rim-rocking, one-handed tomahawk slam by Malik Dunbar and a coast-to-coast score by Horace Spencer in which the 6-foot-8 senior forward looked as graceful as Harper as he euro-stepped to the hoop for the score.
Auburn could do nothing wrong at that point. Seniors Brown and Spencer absorbed it all in the waning minutes.
"It means a lot to me, and I know it means even more to the fans,” Brown said of he and Spencer finishing 4-0 in their careers against Alabama at Auburn Arena. “Just, like I said, I wanted to leave on a good impression of playing Alabama. This was my last time playing them at home, so I know it means a lot to them, and it means a lot to me."
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