The long-anticipated debut of Sharife Cooper took place on Saturday morning. The Powder Springs, Georgia, native started in his first career game, scoring 26 points in 33 minutes in the 94-90 loss to Alabama.
“[Cooper] definitely, obviously, made us better offensively,” Pearl said. “That's an Alabama team you can't score on. We did a good job offensively. Now, on the defensive end, we did not do a good job.”
Alabama came out firing from beyond the arc; its first four shots from the field were from 3-point range. None of them went down, but the Crimson Tide got on the scoreboard first with a pair of free throws from Jordan Bruner.
After the Bruner free throws, it was the Joshua Primo show for Alabama. The Canadian freshman knocked down four 3-point shots over four minutes, extending Alabama’s lead to double digits, 14-4.
Allen Flanigan got on the scorecard for Auburn with an 8-0 run by himself to bring it back within two at 14-12. Flanigan was Auburn’s leading scorer in the first half with 13 points and finished the day with 19 points in a team-leading 35 minutes.
“That was huge that Allen got hot and kind of kept us in the game,” Pearl said. “That’s because [Flanigan] was not afraid. But it was his overall game and throughout the game, playing 35 heavy minutes that I admire as much.”
Early in the first half, the Crimson Tide were able to push the lead back out each time Auburn went on a scoring run. Alabama spread the ball out over its next few possessions, and four players found the basket for the Tide.
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The Crimson Tide’s 14-6 run over the next six minutes pushed the lead out to 28-18 with just over six minutes left in the first half.
Cooper scored his first career points with 4:40 remaining in the first half, a driving layup that was welcomed with large applause by the crowd. The layup was part of a 10-0 Tiger run, tying the game at 28.
A back-and-forth affair commenced for the remainder of the half, with five lead changes occurring in the final two minutes. Auburn led 37-36 after 20 minutes of play.
The Crimson Tide opened the second half the same way they had the first half, with a short run on offense to retake the lead. The story of the second half was Cooper, who dropped 20 points in the final 20 minutes.
Cooper had previously been unable to play with his eligibility under review by the NCAA. According to Pearl postgame, he was cleared late Friday night by the NCAA.
“I'd be wrong if I didn't say it was very hard,” Cooper said. “You know, when you grow up and dream about and constantly think about playing at the college level, and then being in quarantine, your mindset is just focused on getting ready for the season. Through the ups and downs, through the trials and tribulations, I always told myself I won't let it break me.”
The freshman nearly had a double-double in his first game on the Plains, totaling nine assists in his debut. Several of these assists were alley-oops to players like JT Thor and Devan Cambridge.
“You know Devan [Cambridge], he wanted me to play so bad because he likes backdoor lobs,” Cooper said. “If you’re open, I’m gonna find you. If you’re backdoor, I’m gonna find you on a lob. So I always tell my guys: ‘Be ready.'”
Pearl’s decision to start Cooper meant that someone had to come out of the starting lineup. However, it was evident in the locker room that Cooper already has respect from his teammates.
“Devan [Cambridge], Jamal [Johnson] and Al [Flanigan] all offered to come out of the starting lineup in order to start Sharife,” Pearl said. “Each one of them. That tells you about the culture and the chemistry in our locker room.”
Despite the second-half highlights of lobs and dunks for Auburn, Alabama edged out the Tigers, who were never able to quite take control of the game. The Crimson Tide's Bruner and Primo scored 20 points each, with Herb Jones following close behind with 19 points.
Alabama was able to reach the free throw line 26 times in the second half, making 21 of them. Nate Oats’ team finished 82.8% from the charity stripe on the afternoon and had 40 points in the paint.
They nearly doubled the number of rebounds on the offensive glass that Auburn had, overall outrebounding Auburn 42-39.
Pulling down boards is something the Tigers will need to improve on to find a win in the Southeastern Conference.
“I feel like the frontcourt got to hit first and be more physical down the stretch,” Thor said. “Down the stretch, I couldn’t grab the rebound. [Alabama] got it back and got a late bucket. We got to continue to keep working.”
While the Tigers now drop to 0-4 in conference play, there is newfound energy this season, with Cooper now competing for the Tigers.
“It’s the first game and we’ve got a lot to learn,” Cooper said. “I’m ready for this journey.”
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