After Wednesday’s double-overtime loss to UConn, there were no tired legs on the floor for the Tigers against Loyola Chicago on Thursday. The No. 19 Tigers defeated Loyola Chicago 62-53, advancing to the loser’s upper bracket in the Battle 4 Atlantis for their game on Friday.
"That's an NCAA Tournament team," said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl. "That team is picked to win their league...They've been together for about, you know, three years; we've been together about three months."
The Ramblers made it as far as the Sweet-16 team in last year’s NCAA Tournament and returned four seniors for the 2021-2022 season.
Giving thanks to the team’s preseason conditioning, the Tigers’ first back-to-back game of the season was one that displayed relentless floor running and a high-intensity defensive effort that only increased as the clock ticked down. One that looked reminiscent of Bruce Pearl-coached teams of the past.
Auburn outscored Loyola on fast breaks 11-5, while the Tigers out-rebounded the Ramblers on the offensive glass by almost triple the amount.
"I think the depth of our team allows us to play through fatigue,” said sophomore center Walker Kessler.
"Our defense kind of wore them out a bit. I think they (Loyola Chicago) were just fatigued," Pearl said.
Big man Kessler led the team in scoring with 14 points, followed tightly by NBA prospect Jabari Smith who had 13. Smith had the highest plus and minus of the game at +13, while Kessler, the Bad Boy Player of the Game, came to life and took over the paint in the second half, stopping seven drives and blocking four shots for an 88% defensive stop rate.
"Jabari showed he's the best player here and Walker showed he's the best rim protector here,” Pearl said. "I thought Walker obviously had some big plays at the rim. It's his second double-double here at the Battle 4 Atlantis. We're going to need another one tomorrow.”
The true freshman Smith, in his first tournament trip with the Tigers, didn't shy away from the matches' biggest moments, and credited Pearl's confidence in him and his role as a primary decision maker down the stretch as a reason for his success.
"Coach putting the ball in my hands, not necessarily just to score but to make the right plays, so when I catch it, I'm looking for my shot but I'm also looking for an open man," Smith said.
To open the first-ever meeting between the two teams on a holiday in the Bahamas, guard K.D. Johnson jumped the gun and showed the same ferocity on the floor as he did on Wednesday. In the first three minutes of the game, he had three steals and a 3-pointer to put the Tigers up 7-0.
A Loyola run tied the game up midway through the first half, and the game took hold as a Thanksgiving must-see, as both teams took turns swapping leads with 3s and turnovers in a blow-to-blow like fight.
After exchanging blows, Auburn took the half with a last-second Zep Jasper stepback, jumper and the team walked into the locker room with a 34-32 lead.
Loyola and Auburn both seemed to have their thoughts on turkey instead of the basketball game as the match went scoreless after the start of the second half for more than four and a half minutes, then again for two more minutes after a single layup was made by Loyola.
After a few here-and-there sputter points by both teams, Smith and Kessler took control of the floor and displayed their dominance, scoring the next seven field goals for Auburn and putting away the win for the Tigers. The duo of big men scored more than their filling, even more than the filling they’ll presumably eat on this Thanksgiving Day.
No. 19 Auburn is now 1-1 in the Bahamas and will play its third-straight game on Friday at 3:30 p.m. CST on ESPN2 and ESPNU. The Tigers will face the winner of the match between Arizona State and Syracuse.
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Larry is a senior studying journalism with a minor in sociology. He is from Enterprise, Alabama and is in his third year with The Auburn Plainsman.