The ball didn't fall for Auburn in its season debut. In fact, George Mason shot more efficiently from the floor (38% to 34%), but the Tigers were simply too big, too fast and too stingy in a 70-52 win.
“A good win tonight,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl. “To hold them to 52 points and to turn them over 19 times with a veteran team, our defense was really good. It’s a good start.”
Auburn often saw the ball bounce off the rim, shooting at 34% and 16% from 3-point range, but it never saw its lead disappear – it led for all 40 minutes of the game.
Displaying its size advantage, Auburn hauled in 22 offensive rebounds that led to 25 second-chance points. In addition, Auburn won the turnover battle 19-9 in an impressive defensive performance that yielded a dominant team win.
On the other end, it wasn't obvious that Auburn was missing the second-best shot blocker in the country from last season in Walker Kessler. Johni Broome and Dylan Cardwell both made it a daunting task for the Patriots to drive to the goal, as it ended in a blocked shot 10 times. Cardwell swatted five balls, and Broome added four blocks in his Auburn debut.
But the willpower wasn't just shown at the rim – the front-court duo of junior guards K.D. Johnson and Wendell Green Jr. didn't miss a beat.
Johnson came off the bench and forced George Mason to watch every move it made. He started off by jumping on a pass to an outside guard and setting up a two-on-two race down the floor. Johnson simply dumped it off to his partner in crime, Green Jr., for a contested layup. He went on to swipe four of the team's 14 steals, and Auburn led the Patriots in points off turnovers, 21-9.
The pair also led their squad in scoring. Green Jr. led the way with 16 points, followed by Johnson and Broome with 12, and starting forward Chris Moore with eight.
“(Johnson) is just such a factor, and he’s different than anybody else out there," Pearl said. "A lot of really good athletes out there, but nobody's as fast and quick and powerful and explosive. He's a problem.”
In the week leading up to the game, Pearl said he planned to use a 10-man rotation, and he did so quickly. Less than three minutes into the game, Cardwell, Johnson, freshman Yohan Traore, freshman guard Tre Donaldson and veteran small forward Allen Flanigan had all come into the game off the bench. All 10 guys played double-digit minutes and all of them scored.
Coming into his debut season with Auburn as a 5-star recruit, Traore wasn't a featured option in the Tiger rotation. In 17 minutes, Traore scored six points with four rebounds. Flanigan, a 2020 standout, was minimally effective as well, with just three points and two rebounds, but Pearl said not to be overly concerned with guys' lack of production this early in the season.
“I think it’s gonna be balance. I think it’s gonna be different guys on different nights," Pearl said. "I’m gonna let them define their role.”
With under two minutes to go, Pearl added more men to the scorecard in Lior Berman, Jalen Harper, Babatunde Akingbola, and walk-ons Chandler Leopard and Carter Sobera.
Auburn also used the charity stripe to its advantage. Auburn shot 21 more free throws than George Mason, and converted on 18-of-29 attempts. Even though George Mason held a slight shooting advantage, it was all for naught in the end as Auburn had the better athletes on the floor in the end, and it backed up its preseason No.15 record with a 18-point win in front of a Jungle that was, to say the least, enthused to be back in Neville Arena.
Next, Auburn will host USF on Friday at 7 p.m. CST, a team who Auburn needed all 15 points from Johnson to come back from a seven-point halftime deficit to beat.
“If we continue to shoot the ball poorly, then we’ll have concerns,” Pearl said. “I’m not concerned now, but we’ve got to shoot it better. South Florida is going to pack it in. We’re going to have all kinds of open shots. We’ve just got to do a better job of making open shots.”
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Noah is a senior in journalism from Salem, Alabama. He joined the Plainsman in August of 2021 after transferring in from Southern Union Community College.