Tigers Survive MTSU 76–70
Desean Murray (13) and Chuma Okeke (4) vs. Middle Tennessee, Dec. 16, 2017 (photo: Auburn Tigers.com)
Some Auburn basketball fans saw the Middle Tennessee State game and secretly cringed. Auburn brought a solid 8–1 record into the contest against the Blue Raiders whose only loss came at the hands of Temple, a team that has since beaten some decent teams such as Wisconsin and South Carolina.
MTSU entered the contest against Auburn ranked 14th in RPI. In addition MTSU has knocked off two SEC teams already this year. The Blue Raiders are led by senior Nick King who averages 24 points per contest. Auburn’s expected game plan was to try and get King into foul trouble because he hadn’t been stopped by any team he’s faced this season. As it turned out fouls were a huge part of the game as MTSU had four starters with five fouls. The only starter to not record a fifth foul was King, but it didn’t matter because the Tigers held him to his lowest point production of the entire season (12 points). His .308 shot percentage was almost half his average.
How did the Tigers accomplish this? Auburn’s defense created 24 turnovers and added six blocks. Anfernee McLemore was back at it again, making four of the six blocks, while Mustapha Heron and Bryce Brown combined for five steals.
The Tigers played a nearly flawless first half, with one exception: MTSU consistently beat Auburn’s big men. However, the only way MTSU could score was for the guards to bounce pass behind an Auburn defender to the backdoor where King would score.
The Tigers were extremely sloppy in the second half, committing 21 turnovers, yet Auburn was winning by over 20 points for large portions of the game. Things really began to turn for Auburn when …
bench player Malik Dunbar committed a double technical foul. After being whistled for a foul on the perimeter, he exchanged words with the MTSU player and was T’eed up. Following that, he kicked the basketball and earned himself an early exit from the game. MTSU sank all four free throws, and the comeback began. Three of Auburn’s five starters had five turnovers. These either came on attempted slashes in the middle of the lane where MTSU converged and knocked the ball away or were attempted passes into the lane that were easily intercepted.
However, the main issue down the stretch was that MTSU suddenly became nuclear hot from beyond the arc. It didn’t seem to matter who was shooting the long ball for the Blue Raiders, they all began to fall late in the game. Antwain Johnson hit a borderline two pointer then back-to-back three pointers, all in the last 40 seconds. Auburn turned its offense back on and was able to keep pace, but as the score shows the game was far from a blowout.
Coach Bruce Pearl said in his post-game interview that winning this one shouldn’t be discounted. The Blue Raiders have won five straight against SEC teams, and they are likely a Conference USA champion and a post-season tournament team.
However, this is a game where the Auburn Tigers can learn lessons. Pearl teams have had a bad habit of getting up big on teams but playing down to their opponents in the second half, frequently losing the lead. That may not be an issue against bad teams, but playing down to teams like MTSU is playing with fire. This is one of the few things the current Tiger squad needs to rectify to become a good team.
Of course, getting Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley back surely would help, although McLemore has offered as much if not more than Wiley at the center position. Wiley is a polished player, but he played with a lot of hesitation last season.
That hasn’t been a problem for McLemore, who is anything but hesitant, but on this night he scored only eight points and grabbed one offensive rebound. Fortunately, Horace Spencer stepped in and added 11 points.
Freshman Chuma Okeke continues to be the player he was expected to be coming out of high school. He kicked in fourteen points off of the bench while Heron and Jared Harper led the way with 16 apiece.
Auburn travels to Kentucky to take on Murray State this evening at 7:00 PM. Murray played MTSU earlier this year and lost a 72–67 decision. The Tigers are favored by the FPI with a 62%–38% margin.
The Racers are a well rounded team with four players averaging double digits. Forward Terrell Miller, Jr. is their leading scorer, averaging 16 points per contest. He hits about 60% of his shots and is deadly from the line with an 87% mark. Auburn can’t afford to give him easy buckets or put him on the line. This should be a great matchup for McLemore and Spencer. The Racers are 50% from the field and around 38% from beyond the arc, and they enter this contest the top ranked team in the Ohio Valley conference at 7–2.
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