On Saturday, No. 5 Auburn (26-4, 14-3 SEC) returns home for its final regular-season matchup against South Carolina (18-11, 9-8 SEC) with an opportunity to lock up the outright SEC regular-season title with a win.
“A lot to play for against a team playing very well right now," said head coach Bruce Pearl. "We’re playing for the No. 1 seed (in the SEC tournament), and we’re playing to win [the regular season conference title] by ourselves."
Auburn is looking to end its season on a two-game win streak after an overtime victory in Starkville on Wednesday. The win broke Auburn’s streak of three consecutive losses on the road.
“Really pleased with the outcome on Wednesday, to win on the road at Mississippi State,” Pearl said. “Everybody scored, and everyone contributed. We played nine guys, and all of them had pretty positive contributions. Add that all up, and we barely got out of there with an overtime win. That’s what it takes to win on the road against good teams in our league.”
South Carolina is also seeking its second consecutive win after a 73-69 win over Missouri on Wednesday, and the Gamecocks have taken five of its last six SEC matchups, including a 10-point triumph over Mississippi State, who took Auburn to overtime.
They are 4-4 on the road with wins over Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Ole Miss on the road.
“They’re probably a signature win, like Auburn, and a win or two in the SEC tournament away from playing their way into the NCAA tournament, so this is a huge game,” Pearl said.
This contest is a rematch that Auburn won the first time around by a score of 81-66 in Columbia on Jan. 4.
Pearl has had the upper hand in the series with South Carolina head coach Frank Martin’s squad lately, as Auburn enters on a four-game win streak against the Gamecocks.
Looking back at the first matchup with the Gamecocks in January, Pearl stressed the importance of locking down South Carolina’s guards.
In the first matchup, the Gamecock guards were able to move the ball around well and get off uncontested shots. Erik Stevenson led his team with 25 points and four assists, hitting five of their 10 3-pointers, and the team racked up 16 total assists.
The Tiger offense showed plenty of success against South Carolina in January, with four players scoring in double figures and shooting 51.8% from the field as a unit.
The two top scorers, with 22 and 13 points, were Wendell Green Jr. and Zep Jasper, respectively.
While Jasper has been the starter throughout the majority of the season, Green Jr. averages 3.4 more minutes each game and has been called on as the “closer guard” to finish out games.
Jasper has been consistent and reliable this season, averaging less than one turnover per game, but when they need a bucket, the Tigers have turned to Green, who averages 12.1 points per game, compared to Jasper’s 4.9. Jasper seems to have found his stroke lately though, scoring in double figures in two of the last three games and going 7-9 from three in those two games.
Even though he has typically not been on the floor late in games, Pearl voices his confidence in his starting point guard.
“Zep (Jasper) hasn’t closed a lot of games for us this year, and yet he’s our starting point guard,” Pearl said. “He’s going to defend, he’s not going to turn it over, and he’ll make an open shot. I trust him, so that’s a good thing to have at the end of a game.”
The nation's block leader Walker Kessler is “working through” a shoulder injury, according to Pearl. Despite playing 29 minutes against Mississippi State, he was seen with a shoulder strap on after getting clipped in a foul in Knoxville last Saturday.
Kessler only put up four points on four shot attempts on Wednesday, but he helped lead his team to a win with 10 rebounds and three blocks, while committing no turnovers and staying out of foul trouble with just two offences.
The biggest area the Tigers hope to improve in is half-court offense.
The Tigers are second in the conference in rebounding, but sixth in the nation in offensive rebounds per game, and were dominated on the offensive glass by Mississippi State 21-to-7.
“One thing I was pleased with is we made 10 3s on the road and shot it a little better,” Pearl said. “If we can continue to defend and improve on our rebounding, which is a concern, that will help us with our half-court offense.”
For Pearl, getting freshman standout Jabari Smith quality looks is a priority. Smith is coming off a 27-point performance against the Bulldogs in which he put up a team-high 13 shots attempts, and he converted on nine of them.
However, at the end of regulation he missed a deep ball that was highly contested, and the team’s best shooter has not gotten the ball in several key moments late in games.
“When your best player is not your point guard sometimes it can be challenging to get them the last shot,” Pearl said. “We do a pretty good job of getting it to him, but sometimes it can be difficult to get it to him for the last shot.”
The Tigers tipoff with the Gamecocks at noon p.m. CST before heading to the SEC tournament next weekend in Tampa, where they hope to be the top seed.
Their first matchup in the conference tournament will be on Friday, and their opponent is yet to be revealed, but Pearl is focused on ending this season with the team’s 27th win in the 2022 campaign.
“It’ll be win this game at all costs. We’re not holding back at all,” Pearl said.
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