It was a sight no Auburn fan wanted to see.
When Chuma Okeke went down with what seemed to be a serious knee injury, Bruce Pearl looked for answers on the bench for who could replace arguably the Tigers’ best player.
That answer came in the form of Danjel Purifoy.
After mostly a season of mediocre performances on limited minutes as Okeke’s backup, Purifoy has accepted his role but not with a few voiced frustrations that left it up in the air if he would transfer out of the program.
“Danjel is playing behind a great player in Chuma,” Pearl said. “Danjel is very good. He could have packed his bags and waited until next year or some other opportunity, and instead he stayed ready, and so many guys are thinking about well, where can I now go to get more shots or more playing time. And even though he was only playing what, five, ten minutes a game, and these guys did a great job of encouraging Danjel and making sure Danjel understood, hey, we need you and you got to be ready if your number gets called.”
All Purifoy had to do then was wait for his chance to show what he was capable of.
That chance has come during Auburn’s immaculate postseason run, where Purifoy has been a crucial part in the team’s success when the stage has been at its biggest.
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In the SEC Championship game against Tennessee, Purifoy scored a season-high in points, while shooting 62.5 percent from 3 and 100 percent from inside the arc during the span of the SEC Tournament.
Now, with the stakes even higher against the No. 1 seed Tar Heels, Purifoy was once again ready for the spotlight, and ready to lead a bench unit that outscored North Carolina’s, 40-21.
On a team that knocked down 17 3-pointers, Purifoy led all players with four makes from behind the 3-point line for a season-high 12 points.
Purifoy’s spark off the bench was one Pearl credited as a big momentum swing in the game.
Before Okeke exited the game, Purifoy was a part of a 15-3 Auburn explosion during a 2:34 span that grew Auburn’s lead from seven to 19.
During this run, Purifoy was electric off the bench and knocked down three of his four 3-pointers.
“I thought Danjel Purifoy stayed right and ready, and, you know, we probably don't hold on unless we have Danjel sort of ready to be able to go in there,” Pearl said.
With Okeke likely out the rest of the season, Purifoy’s role now will shift from someone whose contributions have been a bonus for most of the season to someone who will be relied upon to provide everything Okeke provided to the team – versatility, defense, go-to scorer and rebounder.
When receiving 28 minutes a game in 2016-17, Purifoy averaged 11.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on 37 percent shooting from 3.
Those numbers are compared to Okeke’s 11.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.8 steals per game on 38 percent from 3.
Statistically, there is not much of a drop off in production from Purifoy and Okeke when Purifoy has been given the proper minutes.
The Auburn players constantly bring up the fact that there is not drop off from the starters to the bench, that will surely be test against Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
Kentucky gave Auburn its last loss and it was not pretty with the Wildcats dominating Auburn 80-53.
Kentucky’s size, defense and rebounding ability has given Auburn fits in both matchups – all area’s that Okeke excelled at.
Rebounding was a big part of Kentucky’s dominance over Auburn this season with Kentucky outrebounding Auburn 76-50. And now, with Auburn’s leading rebounder out, Purifoy – who is not as polished of a rebounder as Okeke – will be relied on to carry the load and help Auburn advance to its first ever Final Four.
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