IN THE CROSSHAIRS

Tigers’ next-man up mentality paces win at Georgia

Ken Cross

February 11, 2018 at 5:50 pm.

Feb 10, 2018; Athens, GA, USA; Auburn Tigers guard Jared Harper (1) dribbles past Georgia Bulldogs guard Juwan Parker (3) during the first half at Stegeman Coliseum. Photo Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 10, 2018; Athens, GA, USA; Auburn Tigers guard Jared Harper (1) dribbles past Georgia Bulldogs guard Juwan Parker (3) during the first half at Stegeman Coliseum. Photo Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn improved to 22-3 and 10-2 to take a two-game lead in the SEC with another total effort in a 78-61 win over Georgia on Saturday. But more than just the win, once again the character, the chemistry and the psychology of the team galvanized as leading scorer Bryce Brown was on the bench with a strained shoulder.

With the nine-man rotation down to eight to start the game, the group stepped up and again showed all the intangibles that will make this team the toughest of outs in March if they stay healthy and continue to focus and pay attention to detail as they have in the first 25 basketball games of the season.

“You could see our guys weren’t intimidated – they were prepared,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl, “It was next man up. The guard play for Auburn was really terrific. Jared Harper really quarterbacked his team with a different speed and quickness and efficiency than really any of the guards out there.”

Harper was super focused as he scored a quick 10 points off the tip to push Auburn to a 17-9 lead just 6:17 into the game.  He hit back-to-back threes with the smoothest of strokes.

Harper took over even more of a leadership role with Brown on the sideline and as he had 24 points and seven assists in 38 minutes. The offense was in rhythm and defensively, playing man-up on the point, Harper had a role in forcing 13 Bulldogs’ turnovers which turned into 25 Tigers points.

“He has great rhythm to his game and great range on the jump shot,” Pearl explained, “It is his trust in his teammates; it is his play calling,  It is his defense; it’s his will to win.”

As the Tigers have taken the “it takes a village” mentality to the floor all season, Harper had help with some aggressive offensive play and defensive mantra on the perimeter with Mustapha Heron, Malik Dunbar and Davion Mitchell, as well.

Mitchell took the lead in disrupting Georgia’s offense. Pearl’s game plan was to push the bigger Bulldogs out and not let them get an array of catches near the basket. When that happened consistently, Georgia’s talented big man and SEC leading scorer Yante Maten still had 20 points, but he took only 10 shots in 39 minutes.

The athletic Anfernee McLemore inside, plus Desean Murray, a 6-3 forward who can physically and athletically affect a game inside, kept the Bulldogs from crashing the paint. Chuma Okeke, a talented freshman, played 27 minutes in the game, which was needed because of cramps in Murray’s legs in the second half.

“I thought we made their catches difficult and Davion played with great confidence for a freshman and then Mustapha Heron has another level and has that next gear,” noted Pearl, “He plays in such a really good rhythm.”

As Auburn inflicted its will on the game, Georgia would get tentative on both ends which allowed the Tigers to cause the turnovers on defense, and it also allowed Harper to run a beautiful, quick hitting offense.

In the end it showed why Auburn is in the running for its first SEC title since the 1999-2000 campaign. All the ingredients are there – players sharing the basketball, helping on defense, communicating on the floor, implementing a game plan, and then winning in a tough arena against a good team that has struggled of late.

“We got great, great guard play, great bench play, and 25 points off the turnovers and were able to disrupt Georgia just enough,” Pearl noted.

 

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