In a game without their best player, trailing at halftime to a team that has beaten them twice already this season, the Tigers and their Final Four hopes seemed bleak.
At the break, Kentucky was physically dominating Auburn, forcing four different Tigers into foul trouble with at least two fouls.
Not only was Kentucky more physical than Auburn, they were beating Auburn at almost every facet of the game, too.
Kentucky had the edge in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, 3-pointers made, free throw percentage, rebounds, bench points, fast break points and blocks.
Auburn hasn’t had much success this season when trailing at half, winning only twice this season. But with the season on the line, the second-half comeback had to come from the defense.
“I really think that Samir picked us up defensively with his energy and then Bryce at the end of the first half, Bryce started pressure up on Ashton (Hagans),” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl.
Auburn has thrived all year on making more 3s than the other team, and the Tigers weren’t successful in the first half against a Kentucky team that doesn’t rely on the 3-ball much.
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That changed in the second half when Auburn turned up its perimeter defense by not allowing Kentucky to make a 3-pointer until 16 seconds left in overtime.
“But at some point, Bryce Brown as a senior had to put pressure on Ashton and not let him get to spots on the floor,” Pearl said. “Our guys saw that in the halftime locker room. Samir came in at halftime said, 'Guys, we're going to win this game with our defense.'"
Tyler Herro, one of Kentucky’s leading scorers and dynamic freshmen, was shut down by one of the MVPs of Auburn’s win – Samir Doughty – in the second half, scoring only two points on 1-of-3 shooting.
“Samir Doughty locked up one of the best offensive players in this tournament in Tyler Herro,” Pearl said. “I mean, he just took it on himself to make sure that he wasn't going to get great looks and that then made them go to Washington almost exclusively when Samir just locked his assignment up.”
Doughty not only was a menace on the defensive end, he picked up a lot of slack on rebounding for Auburn with Chuma Okeke out, racking up seven rebounds.
Thanks to a team effort on the boards in the second half, Auburn out-rebounded Kentucky 19-18.
The defensive pressure from Auburn forced the Tigers into more foul trouble but the total amount of fouls in the second half was lower than in the first.
With a more precise defense, Auburn was able to play hard defense without committing as many fouls while having the advantage in blocks and steals in the second half.
“Our defense to start the second half was tremendous,” Pearl said. “Incredible ball pressure forced Kentucky out a way. We didn't turn them over as much, but we were aggressive without fouling.”
The Tigers are known for their high-octane offense but in today’s historic victory, Auburn’s defense stole the show and sealed the victory.
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