Auburn Defies Murray State and the Refs for Its Tenth Win
Jared Harper shined in Auburn's win over Murray State. (photo: Dave Winder/ Murray St. Athletics)
It may have been the ugliest win of the Bruce Pearl era, but Coach Pearl and the Auburn Tigers will take an ugly win any day over an ugly loss.
Auburn fans were on Twitter, likening Wednesday night’s 81-77 win over Murray State to last season’s Boston College match and rightfully so. Auburn was sloppy yet again, mostly due to having to press too hard to overcome sketchy officiating. Horace Spencer was given a flagrant two and escorted off the court, making it the second straight game that Auburn has had a player ejected. The foul was intentional, make no mistake. But it was probably a reach for it to be flagrant and certainly out of bounds for a flagrant two. Spencer was playing good ball just as he did last week when he came off the bench to help lead Auburn to a win against a good MTSU team.
Within moments of Spencer’s leaving the court, Chuma Okeke and Anfernee McLemore were in serious foul trouble and began the second half with three fouls apiece. Elsewhere, Mustapha Heron, Auburn’s best player not currently suspended, wasn’t playing like himself. He was fighting illness and played 29 minutes on the verge of vomiting. After getting down 12–2, Bryce Brown hit 13 first half points, including three triples, and Malik Dunbar kicked in two long balls as Auburn came storming back. Auburn held a shaky 42–36 lead at the half.
Auburn’s having to play extra cautiously allowed Murray State to outscore Auburn 41–39 in the second half. The officiating continued to be very one-sided as Mercer was into the double bonus early in the second half. Auburn did not reach the bonus until the game was nearly over.
Grit prevailed for the Auburn Tigers as the smallest starter on the roster, Jared Harper, took over the game in the waning minutes. With almost exactly four minutes left, Auburn was down a point 66–67 when Harper, the triggerman, won the game for Auburn. Fighting off a full court press, he took the handle with tight coverage. Despite being inches shorter than the defender, Harper performed an intricate chess match of body positioning until he created a shooting lane. The sub-six footer launched an NBA three off the dribble in the face of the bigger defender. Auburn had a two-point lead. Ten seconds later, Murray’s Shaw Buchanan tied the game 69–69. Harper took the rock off the full court press and set up the offense. He led the defender left, came slashing back to the top of the arc and fired another NBA three that fell. In less than 50 seconds, Harper gave Auburn the lead and put the Racers into foul mode. He wasn’t done. After Murray State sank a set of free throws. Harper was right back down the floor for three more.
In a bit of brilliance by both Pearl and Harper, each offensive possession featured Harper with the rock. The Tigers used ball screens to send Harper to the rim multiple times. In four minutes, Harper scored 11 points and lifted the Tigers to a win against the Ohio Valley Conference’s second best team.
As we’ve said before, Harper doesn’t show up as Auburn’s leading scorer, but he can take over and dominate games in spite of being the smallest player on the floor. He scored 17 points and had four assists. And once again, Auburn found a way to win, improving to 10–1, despite Spencer’s fouling out, Anfernee McLemore suffering a concussion, and Mustapha Heron fighting illness. Desean Murray quietly added 18 points to lead Auburn, doing the majority of his damage on the boards while pulling down five offensive rebounds. And Malik Dunbar was crucial to the Auburn win, coming off the bench for nine points on flawless 3–3 shooting from beyond the arc.
Preview of Auburn’s next opponent after the jump:
Up next is a marquee matchup as UConn comes to town. UConn isn’t the team they have been over the last decade, and ESPN BPI gives Auburn a lopsided 92% chance to win. The Huskies are 7–2, coming off of a 3–3 stretch that included a 102–67 thrashing by Arkansas on November 26. Since then, the Huskies have struggled to score points, posting 63 in a loss to Syracuse and 72 in a win against Coppin State. One of the reasons for their struggles is they average turning the ball over 13 times per contest, which is an area where Auburn can really take advantage.
The Huskies get their production from a trio of guards in Jalen Adams, Terry Larrier, and Christian Vital, who average 19, 15, and 12 points, respectively. Larrier is the only three-point shooter to fear, hitting 41 percent of his attempts. The rest of the team is sub-30 percent save for Adams, at 34 percent. The Huskies don’t shoot it much better from the floor (40 percent). However, their defense keeps them in many games, and they average four blocks a game in the paint.
UConn plays with four guards and a 6′ 8″ freshman forward, Mamadou Diarra. It might be assumed that because UConn uses four guards they emphasize speed over size, yet no one on the starting five is under 6′ 2′. It will be interesting to see how Pearl approaches this lineup. Expect Auburn to push UConn to play a perimeter shooting game while forcing the ball inside to Diarra, giving Anfernee McLemore the chance to physically dominate the freshman. Auburn cannot allow the Huskies to slash to the hoop.
The Huskies play at Arizona on Thursday night before traveling to the Auburn Arena for Saturday’s game. This game, paired with how Alabama played Arizona last week, will show how far Auburn has come. Make sure to check on the 7:00 PM, prime time game on ESPN2 and follow me on Twitter @Best5Zach as I live tweet the game.