IN THE CROSSHAIRS

SEC Shows Strong with four in Sweet 16

Ken Cross

March 25, 2019 at 11:06 pm.

Mar 23, 2019; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Auburn Tigers guard Jared Harper (1) goes up for a basket ahead of Kansas Jayhawks guard Marcus Garrett (0) during the first half in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Mar 23, 2019; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Auburn Tigers guard Jared Harper (1) goes up for a basket ahead of Kansas Jayhawks guard Marcus Garrett (0) during the first half in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

What has been a banner year for SEC basketball was proven and then defined over the weekend as four of the seven NCAA Tournament entrants won two games and punched their tickets for the Sweet 16.

There were lots of routes that Auburn, Tennessee, LSU and Kentucky had to take in order to still be alive.  None of the paths were even remotely the same although they all had to stand tall with their defenses in the clutch to survive and advance.

Auburn – The Tigers used their up-tempo approach with a solid defense and their 3-ball game to decimate Kansas, 89-75, in Salt Lake City.

The Tigers’ speed and defense set the tone as they rolled up a 51-25 halftime lead behind nine first-half 3-pointers as guard Bryce Brown made seven of their 13 for the game en route to the Tigers’ 10th win in a row and their first appearance in the Sweet 16 in 16 years.

“Coach always talked about how it was on us if you want to make that decision that you want to go far in the tournament, it starts on the defensive side,” explained Brown. “Ever since we made that adjustment, we’re moving the ball well, defending, you know, being physical.”

Point guard Jared Harper controlled the game with his quickness and his speed as he followed Brown’s game-high 25 points with 18 of his own. He ran the Auburn transition game impeccably well with six assists against only two turnovers in 34 minutes.

“Obviously, he’s fearless and he knows his role,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. “Little guys have got to be, they’ve got to have great range, they’ve got to be special in ball screen offense and defense and they have to have command of their locker room, and he has all those things.”

The Tigers take on North Carolina on Friday night in Kansas City.

LSU – Tremont Waters is another diminutive point guard with a big heart and an ever-burning fire and he displayed as such in the Tigers’ 69-67 win over Maryland in Jacksonville.

Jalen Smith had just hit a three with 23 seconds remaining to tie the game at 67-67 and interim-coach Tony Benford called time out to set up the last play.

After the time out, Waters took a high ball screen from Naz Reid and circled to the right side of the floor. He used a strong hesitation dribble to freeze his defender and then laid an underhanded layup off the glass over the 6-11 Smith for the game-winner.

His quickness had also moved Bruno Fernando out of the boxes as Fernando came up in the lane because he had to take the middle away from Waters.

“They have taken ownership of this team,” commented Benford. “It’s about these guys. These three guys here (Waters, Reid and Skylar Mays) and the rest of those guys. They trust each other and respect each other; they love each other, and when you have a team like that, you have a chance to win games, and that’s why we’re able to keep moving on.”

Mays put LSU in position for the win as he scored eight late points to answer the Terps who had a huge momentum boost as they used a 2-3 zone to slow LSU, distort the Tigers’ shot selection, and erase three different 15-point leads.

LSU plays Michigan State in Washington, D.C. on Friday evening.

Kentucky — Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro all took turns at defending the new reigning career three-point shooter in Wofford’s Fletcher Magee. The relentlessness on defense was stellar as they stopped Magee’s three-ball in holding him to 0-for-12 from behind the arc and 4-of-17 overall as the Wildcats took out Wofford, 62-56.

“We knew coming into this game he was a great shooter, so the game plan was just make him make a basketball play, put it on the floor,” said Kentucky guard Ashton Hagans.

The Terriers had won 21 in a row and were playing as well as anyone in the tournament, but Johnson led a 10-2 Wildcats run midway through the second half to give Kentucky a 45-37 lead which the ‘Cats never relinquished the rest of the way. Wofford fought back and cut it to two with under a minute on a stick-back by Keve Aluma.

Kentucky didn’t score a field goal in the last 5:12 of the game after Herro, who was the first player who had coverage options on Magee, hit a triple to give Kentucky a 57-51 lead.

“It was the effort and energy, and my hope is they got a little worn down because these guys did not stop,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of the Wildcats’ defensive effort. “They just chased, and they knew they couldn’t let up in this game or they were going to score baskets because it’s how they play.”

The Wildcats enter the Sweet 16 against Houston in Kansas City on Friday evening.

Tennessee – Leading 44-19 late in the first half, the Volunteers had totally destroyed Iowa to that point in the game before the Hawkeyes made a furious second half rally that left Tennessee on its heels. It took leadership and stellar play by Grant Williams in overtime to pace Tennessee to an 83-77 win and its first Sweet 16 in four years.

“We knew that defensively we had to step up because we came out at halftime and we were trying to slow the pace of the game down and that’s how they like to play,” said Williams. “We should have just kept going how we were going and kept the pace up, kept trying to being aggressive and dominant.”

Williams’ leadership was apparent as he carried Tennessee in overtime with Admiral Schofield on the bench in foul trouble.

The Vols picked up their rhythm and built a 78-73 lead with 1:59 remaining as Schofield told coach Rick Barnes to play Kyle Alexander in the overtime because of Alexander’s contributions and play, especially on the defensive end.

“He kept saying leave Kyle in the game,” noted Barnes of his conversation with Schofield. “Kyle is important. With four fouls, he knew they would come right at him. He said, ‘Coach, I can’t guard the way I can guard. I’m going to foul, so you have to leave Kyle in.’ That was his decision. He said, ‘Leave Kyle in the game.’”

Alexander’s length and activity on defense altered shots in the overtime, while Williams called for and wanted the basketball. The flow of the overtime was appropriate for a Tennessee team that felt the wrath of a drastic change in officiating in the second half. The Hawkeyes were allowed to distort Tennessee’s freedom of movement on offense by clutching and grabbing and body-checking Lamonte’ Turner, Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden on the perimeter.

“Kyle Alexander was phenomenal tonight, and if anyone doesn’t believe that or anything like that he was incredible,” said Williams. “He was on the glass; he was a presence; he was defensively there. He was doing his job and its all love.”

Tennessee plays an equally physical Purdue team on Thursday night in Louisville.