NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Malik Dunbar butted his way into the media scrum surrounding Jared Harper. He raised his iPhone — black with an AU logo phone wallet on the back — over the TV cameras and lights before working his way around to an opening right beside Harper.
He listened to Harper, Auburn’s three-year starter at point guard and undisputed leader of Bruce Pearl’s run-and-gun, open-floor, 3-point bombardment offense, answer questions, poised and thoughtful.
Dunbar eavesdropped intently, raising his eyebrows sarcastically when Harper began to speak. After a few seconds, Harper noticed that one of the 15 or so people surrounding him was 6-foot-6 and shirtless. He half-smiled for a moment, tongue in cheek, before reverting his focus back to the questioner.
The question was about Harper’s mentality — what allows him to take over a ballgame like he did in Auburn’s 73-64 win over 4-seed South Carolina on Friday in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
The question was directed to Harper, obviously. But Dunbar answered it instead. Sort of.
“Yes!” Dunbar yelled as the media members in front of him, previously unknowing of his presence, nearly jumped out of their skin. “He’s a dog!”
That section of the room chuckled. Satisfied with his work, Dunbar skipped away.
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“Hey, Jared,” Dunbar said back at his locker as he was hitting teammate Samir Doughty on the arm, non-verbally asking him to partake in the shenanigans. “You need some ice for your back? He carried us tonight!”
Doughty caught on to the antics and chimed in.
“Yeah, you need ice for your back, Jared?” Doughty said.
There weren’t any Tigers literally on Harper’s back at any point in the victory. But while he was exploding for 19 points in the second half and leading Auburn to its first SEC semifinals appearance since 2015, Harper found his back slamming down to the hardwood repeatedly.
He was attacking the basket with quickness and confidence, appearing, at least offensively, as a wildly different player than the one who scored just five points and was a near-nonfactor for Auburn on Wednesday against Missouri.
Harper exploded for 27 points in the win over South Carolina — his most this calendar year and five points shy of his career high.
Before Harper’s takeover, Pearl’s offense wasn’t lackluster by any means. But it was limited.
Just as he’s been all season for the Gamecocks, power forward Chris Silva, a 2018-19 All-SEC and All-Defensive team selection, was their heartbeat. After posting a career-high 32 points to go with 14 rebounds in South Carolina’s win over Auburn during the regular season, the senior tied Harper to lead all scorers Friday with 27 points and 11 boards.
Silva was so valuable when on the floor for the Gamecocks that it was equally valuable minutes for Auburn to attack when he was on the bench. The Tigers outscored USC 16-0 for the game when Silva wasn’t on the court.
Like South Carolina’s previous matchup with Auburn in the regular season — an 80-77 victory on January 22 in which both Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore were fouled out with eight minutes to play — Silva’s elite ability to draw fouls down low was on full display. He drew four fouls in the first three minutes of play, including a pair on Chuma Okeke. Silva bullied McLemore as well, forcing him to the bench early in the second half.
Auburn didn’t panic, however. It simply turned to its floor general to use South Carolina’s primary game plan against it.
“Well, Silva always gets fouls called,” Spencer said. “He probably gets the most fouls called in the SEC, and we know that. We can’t let that affect our play. While he’s getting foul calls and getting us (bigs) off the floor, Jared takes advantage of that. When we go small, there’s more space on the floor for him to work.
“There was a positive side to us going to the bench more than a negative side.”
As McLemore and Spencer continued to collect fouls and log more time on the bench, Auburn’s on-court lineup thinned. With the smaller offense came an increased pace, with which Harper thrived.
All 5-foot-10 of Harper led Auburn in rebounds with six, as well as assists, also at six. Following a long board, the junior rocketed up the floor. South Carolina could do little to slow that tactic down.
“They don’t have anybody who can keep Jared in front of them,” Pearl said. “So, spreading the floor, letting him get down hill — even though we may not have made a field goal, if Jared can drive and create contact and go to the foul line, that’s like a field goal.”
Auburn did its best to work Silva away from the basket and spread out the frontcourt. A late triple from Spencer — just his third 3-pointer of the season — helped that approach.
But even when coach Frank Martin was able to set the Gamecock defense and send multiple defenders to Harper at the top, it didn’t matter.
“(Harper) was treating double teams like they were kindergartners — going right past ‘em,” said senior guard Bryce Brown.
Harper split the doubles, got into the paint and rose up. But he wasn’t reckless. He was tactical and calculated with each attack.
“He’s not like other guards,” Brown said. “He has a plan when he’s going to the paint. He’s not just going to throw up anything. He has a plan — whether it’s kicking it to his teammates or trying to finish.”
Often, Silva and company were there to force a miss, but not before the whistle blew.
“With Silva in there patrolling the rim, Jared’s two free throws is a way higher percentage look than driving in there and dealing with Mr. Silva,” Pearl said.
Harper was the only player on either team to attempt a free throw in the second half until eight minutes remained. He finished 12-of-14 at the line.
Brown added 19 behind five 3-pointers, the third of which moved Auburn’s into first place for 3-pointers made in a season in conference history.
The Tigers are now a win away from the SEC Tournament finals. After an upset over 1-seed LSU, eighth-seeded Florida looms tomorrow at 12 p.m. CST.
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