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A spirit that is not afraid

Auburn cruises past Texas A&M as Kessler records triple-double

<p>February 12, 2022; Auburn, Alabama; Walker Kessler (13) dunks the ball in a match between Auburn and Texas A&amp;M in the Auburn Arena.</p>

February 12, 2022; Auburn, Alabama; Walker Kessler (13) dunks the ball in a match between Auburn and Texas A&M in the Auburn Arena.

AUBURN, Ala. — Before Walker Kessler arrived on the Plains, only one player in Auburn basketball history — Kenny Gabriel — had recorded a triple-double, back in 2012. Saturday against Texas A&M, Kessler recorded his second triple-double of the season in a 75-58 win over the Aggies.

"He’s one of the most dominant players in all of college basketball," said head coach Bruce Pearl of Kessler. "How would you ever have thought that you could say that a year ago, that Walker Kessler is one of the most dominant players in college basketball. I’m so proud of him."

Kessler scored 12 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and had a career-high 12 blocks.

February 12, 2022; Auburn, Alabama; Walker Kessler (13) shares a smile before a match between Auburn and Texas A&M in the Auburn Arena.

The 7-foot-1 center became the fifth SEC player in conference history to record multiple triple-doubles.

"I'm thankful that I got teammates like Al [Flanigan] and teammates like — all my teammates," Kessler said. "They make it easy to block shots because they're so good at defending the ball. They know that I can block the shots so they corral the guard to me so I wouldn't be able to do that kind of stuff without them. I'm just thankful to get the win."

The Jungle was flooded with white AUTLIVE t-shirts, head football coach Bryan Harsin made an appearance and College GameDay hosted its show from the floor ahead of the contest to start another Saturday in Auburn.

In the opening minutes of the contest, Allen Flanigan knocked down a pair of free throws, but other than that, points were scarce. Texas A&M and Auburn started a combined 0-for-12 from the floor before Flanigan scored a basket to put Auburn up 4-0.

The lead was not overtaken and it was a preview of the season's best performance by Flanigan that was soon to follow.

Following the sluggish offensive start, the two teams combined to make their next five shots from the field. A&M had brought it to as little as a one-point contest before the Tigers seriously heated up, going on a 13-0 run to push the lead into double figures at 23-9.

Auburn's defense held the Aggies to less than 10 points for over 14 minutes before they finally reached double figures.

After Texas A&M had ended the Auburn scoring run, the action was reignited. Devan Cambridge took a pass from Wendell Green Jr. on the fast break and hammered a one-handed dunk, as the Aggie defender moved out of Cambridge's way.

It was one of 10 dunks by the Auburn squad, with several courtesy of Cambridge. He finished with 10 points and four rebounds in 17 minutes.

Auburn scored 48 of its 75 points in the paint while it struggled from outside the arc. The Tigers shot 3-for-25 from 3-point range, their worst shooting percentage from downtown in a game this season.

"You look at our shooting percentages from three and most of them were open shots," Pearl said. "It's the next thing we've got to do to be really considered being able to win this championship. If we don't start shooting it better, we won't. We just won't."

Meanwhile, Texas A&M also struggled shooting the ball. The Aggies shot 7-for-39 from the field in the first half, scoring just 18 points by the end of the half. Auburn had a 15-point lead at the midway point.

"We knew coming into this game, watching the film that they (Texas A&M) were going to try to draw the ball, that some of the guards were more dominant-handed," Flanigan said. "So we just stayed on their strong hands and just stayed in front of the ball and let Walk [Kessler] and Jabari [Smith Jr.] clean up the shots at the rim."

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In the second half, the shooting percentage between Auburn and Texas A&M was nearly identical, with both teams shooting 38% from the field.

But the story of the second half was Kessler and his triple-double.

After 20 minutes of play, Kessler had two points, three rebounds and seven blocks. The sophomore erupted in the second half, including a run that lasted just over a minute where he scored six straight points for Auburn.

With 3:45 to go in the game, Kessler pulled down his 10th rebound and secured the triple-double. It warranted a large applause from the crowd, acknowledging Kessler's accomplishment.

Kessler was one of four Auburn players in double figures scoring, joining Cambridge (10), Flanigan (16) and K.D. Johnson (11).

Flanigan's 16 points marked a season-high for the junior guard, who missed part of the season due to injury.

"It felt great to just go out there and get my groove back a little bit," Flanigan said. "My teammates and coaches were a big part of that."

He led the team in points scored, nearly led the team in minutes played (25) and was the only Tiger that played more than three minutes that didn't commit a foul.

February 12, 2022; Auburn, Alabama; Allen Flanigan (22) takes a defender to the rim in a match between Auburn and Texas A&M in the Auburn Arena.

Auburn regained its starting point guard, Zep Jasper, for the game, who had missed the previous two games with an illness. While Jasper didn't score much on offense, it's his defensive ability that creates challenges for opposing teams.

"Zep brings the fire on defense," Flanigan said. "He's going to get up in you, he's going to play defense, he's going to move his feet and he's going to lock down whoever he's in front of every night."

Texas A&M's 58 points tied a season-low for the Aggies in SEC play this season.

"I thought Steven Pearl and his team did a great job with the scout," Pearl said. "I think our guys really locked in. We did a great job guarding them in halfcourt, but we still struggled a little bit to guard them in transition."

Nonetheless, the Tigers got the win after an overtime heartbreaker against Arkansas last Tuesday. However, Pearl didn't necessarily call it a bounce back win as Auburn won its 15th in a row at home.

"This is a pretty safe environment for us," Pearl said. "So we'll take them one at a time. We'll talk about the bounce-back after the Vanderbilt game."

Auburn faces Vanderbilt at home on Wednesday at 8 p.m. CST on SEC Network before its first road test since the Arkansas loss — next Saturday at Florida.

Caleb Jones | Sports Editor

Originally from Helena, Ala., Caleb Jones is a senior studying journalism at Auburn University. He has been on staff with The Plainsman since 2019.

You can follow him here on Twitter: @calebjsports

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