Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said earlier in the week Georgia Southern wouldn’t be your everyday, non-conference season opener, but instead a ‘handful’ for his new-look Tigers.
That sentiment rang true Tuesday night.
No. 24 Auburn downed Georgia Southern 83-74, behind Samir Doughty’s 20 points and four steals, in a sloppy season opener for both teams, despite turning the ball over 21 times and knocking down just seven 3-pointers.
“This was one of the most challenging scouts for an opening game that I’ve had in a long time,” Pearl said postgame of preparing for this Eagles team.
Auburn had trouble getting separation from Georgia Southern on the scoreboard early in the contest, due in large part to mental mistakes and turnovers. The Tigers had 13 of the 21 turnovers in the first half which turned into 17 Georgia Southern points.
“We didn’t expect to come in here and blow these guys out,” Doughty said. “They’re an older team. We talked about it all week. We knew it was going to be a dog fight.”
The Tigers, with their brand new Final Four banner hanging from the exterior of Auburn Arena, battled back and forth with the Eagles for the better part of the night, never quite being able to pull away completely. Doughty, who led all scorers with 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting, iced the game late making five of his last six free throws in the final minutes after Georgia Southern had trimmed the lead to single digits.
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“Samir made plays,” Pearl said. “Not afraid. A lot of ways, helped win the ballgame for us, because he makes plays, offensively and defensively. It’s good to have him on the ball.”
Auburn finished 18-of-25 (72 %) from the free-throw line, with Doughty going 7-for-9 himself from the strike.
After an up and down first half in which the Tigers struggled to find consistency, they took a commanding 61-48 lead eight minutes into the second half when Doughty’s steal and subsequent layup, as well as Danjel Purifoy’s 3-pointer, capped a 10-3 run.
Purifoy added 13 points, nine of them coming from beyond the arc, and Austin Wiley led the team, grabbing nine rebounds and finished with 13 points of his own. Auburn outrebounded its Sun Belt foe, 41-27.
Freshman Isaac Okoro scored 12 points and had five rebounds in his college debut, and newly appointed starting point guard, J’Von McCormick, rebounded from his less than stellar first half scoring nine points and adding four assists. McCormick and Wiley did, however, combine for nine of the team’s 21 turnovers.
Pearl noted, earlier this month, that defensive rotations were going to be a working progress with all of the moving pieces of a new team, with veterans and youngsters alike, playing in new roles. The Eagles exposed just that, driving inside early and often, scoring 42 points in the paint against Pearl’s squad.
“They were quicker at every position, and they were really good at driving downhill,” Pearl said. “So guys gave them too many direct-line drives, didn’t compete to stay in front, and as a result they had their way with us. We are able to do a lot of things defensively to cover up some of those challenges, but not against a smaller, quicker team.”
Auburn will face Davidson next at the Veterans Classic in Annapolis, Maryland, on Friday.
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