Standing-room only filled in the rest of a sold-out Auburn Arena as the Auburn faithful welcomed back their team from a two-game road trip. The Tigers handled business in what head coach Bruce Pearl called a "trap game" earlier this week, defeating Georgia 83-60 Wednesday.
"Georgia played hard the whole time," Pearl said. "But we did what we needed to do."
With no Auburn player scoring more than 15 points, the win was a team effort that saw six Tigers score in double-figures, including two off of the bench. Sophomore center Walker Kessler was the leading scorer for the fifth time this season and now in back-to-back games for the Tigers.
While Kessler led the offense in points, his impact on defense was also felt, recording six blocks in the victory. Now at 77 blocks on the season, Kessler is tied with Mamadou N’diaye for fourth all-time in Auburn history for single-season blocks.
"Walker played great again," Pearl said. "[Kessler] was a factor at the rim."
The Auburn offense started hot, scoring a controversial 52 points in the first half, but it wasn't the only thing that got heated early.
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Minutes following the opening tip, time was called when Georgia’s Braelen Bridges crouched to the ground clinching his lower abdomen. As both teams stopped play, Bridges proceeded to stand up, walk over to Jabari Smith and get in Smith’s face.
The two exchanged words briefly before officials moved both teams to their respective sides of the court.
"Yeah, I'm not a big fan of trying to take somebody's best player out of the game," Pearl said. "Teams will do that to great players."
From the court, Smith was largely kept quiet in the first half. He scored four points and grabbed a team-high five rebounds through 20 minutes of play. Smith picked up his offensive pace a little in the second and scored in double figures for the 15th consecutive game, recording 12 points.
Instead, it was K.D. Johnson that brought the intensity and the baskets early on against his former team.
Johnson came out firing from beyond the arc, looking for a 3-point shot in the opening minutes of the contest. He missed his first three attempts before finally connecting on one right in front of his former coach, Tom Crean.
It was the first of three-straight triples for Johnson, who also finished his evening with 12 points.
The Johnson 3-pointers contributed to a pair of 8-0 runs by Auburn in the first half, which pushed the lead out to as many as 26 at one point — capitalized by a Dylan Cardwell put-back dunk.
"Well I thought we were making shots," Pearl said. "We held [Georgia] down pretty good, we turned them over pretty well, got some points off turnovers, I thought we shared it."
As the first-half buzzer sounded, controversy filled the arena before both teams took to the locker room. Smith had grabbed an offensive rebound and dumped the ball to Kessler in the paint, who appeared to initially get the shot off prior to the buzzer.
It went to replay, where it was ruled that time had expired before the ball had left the fingertips of Kessler. When both teams returned to the court 20 minutes later, Auburn had regained two points — the call was reversed a second time during the break to award Kessler the buzzer-beater.
"We thought the ball was gone," Pearl said. "We thought the kid moved under. They let us go into halftime and they came back and they must have determined that [Kessler scored]."
Physicality and mismatches down low helped the Tigers outscore Georgia 38-28 in the paint, several of which came in the form of dunks. Auburn had 10 dunks compared to Georgia’s one, each one energizing The Jungle, which was chanting “No. 1! No. 1!” by the end of the night.
"Great energy in the building," Pearl said. "The environment once again was fantastic here in this arena. Appreciate all of our fans more than I can even begin to tell you."
The chant was in reference to the Tigers’ recent AP Poll ranking at No. 2, where the Tigers fell four points short of the first-place ranking. Earlier this week, Pearl said he felt his team was deserving of the No. 1 ranking.
Meanwhile on the court, it was No. 1 for the Tigers — Wendell Green Jr. — who was dishing out assists left and right. Green had a season-high 11 assists on the night, while still tallying 12 points.
The transfer guard credits his teammates for his success and second career double-double with Auburn.
"Shoutout to my teammates," Green said. "Assists are a two-way street. I can't do it without my teammates, so all credit to them for my 11 assists."
The transfer guard is one of several Auburn players that have made an impact off the bench all season long. He was joined in double figures by Jaylin Williams, who scored 13 points in only 17 minutes on the court. Auburn's bench outscored Georgia's bench 31-9.
Regardless of the way the starters come out, the high level of energy from the bench is what's led to its success.
"Coming off the bench, if the starter's not having a good start, when we come in, we gotta pick up the energy," Williams said. "If they're having a good start, we gotta come in with the same energy as them. It's a good spark for us."
Auburn plays host to No. 12 Kentucky on Saturday from Auburn Arena, where the Tigers are looking to make it 15 wins in a row and separate themselves further from the rest of the conference.
"It'll be a clash of the titans, that's for sure," Pearl said. "There will be a lot of great players on the court on Saturday."
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