KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Auburn has needed big contributions from its bench down the stretch to be able to first win the SEC Tournament, and then advance to an Elite Eight.
Friday night was no different.
The Tigers’ bench tallied 40 points, compared to just 21 from North Carolina, as six different players scored in double figures and 5-seed Auburn took down top-seeded North Carolina, 97-80.
Danjel Purifoy, Samir Doughty, and J’Von McCormick all scored in double figures off the bench, and provided much needed rest for starters Jared Harper and Bryce Brown who got off to cold starts. Purifoy led the trio with 12 points, all coming from beyond the arc, while Doughty and McCormick added 10 apiece.
“I thought our bench did a tremendous job responding,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. “… 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. Think it’s a great lesson for teams.”
Purifoy was a big part of the Tigers 16-3 run in the second half whereas McCormick, on the other hand, was the main contributor in the first half when Harper had to sit after picking up his second foul with just over seven minutes until halftime.
“I was in foul trouble in the first half,” Harper said. “I think I wanted to get in the game late, but our coaches, our teammates, we all do trust J’Von so much. He made some incredible plays tonight, and just that play at the end of the first half when he was able to go down the lane and finish was a big play.”
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Auburn will rely on players like Purifoy and McCormick to continue to step up, now more than ever, with Chuma Okeke likely sidelined for the rest of the tournament with a knee injury. Okeke, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds Friday night against North Carolina, had to be helped off the court late in the second half after his knee buckled on a drive to the basket.
The Tigers will face 2-seed Kentucky, which narrowly escaped Houston, Sunday afternoon in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats dominated Auburn 80-53 in their previous matchup in late February inside Rupp Arena, which is the last time this Auburn team has lost a game.
Since then, they are 11-0.
“Over the past month, we’ve got contributions from all ten of our players,” Harper said. “So it will take all nine of our players to be able to play and step in his role, make sure we’re in the right spots and rebound. I know our team is ready for the moment.”
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