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Auburn had to go to Starkville, Mississippi Wednesday to make history, but it will take it. Mainly because there is just not a lot of Auburn basketball history.
The No. 5 Tigers won a share of their fourth Southeastern Conference men’s basketball championship with an 81-68 victory at Mississippi State in front of a raucous 9,637 at Humphrey Coliseum.
That’s four titles in 62 years. The first one was in 1960 under coach Joel Eaves, whom they named an arena after.
The second one was in 1999 by Cliff Ellis, who is still coaching at Coastal Carolina at age 76.
Auburn’s third SEC title was in 2018 under coach Bruce Pearl, who became the first Auburn basketball coach in history to win two league titles.
Kentucky, which has won 51 SEC titles, won its last four since only 2015 under coach John Calipari, who has won six in all since moving to Lexington before the 2009-10 season. Pearl, though, has more SEC titles over the last five years than any other coach in the SEC.
Auburn also got ranked No. 1 this season for the first time. Could this be a trend?
“It means so much to us because this league is so good,” Pearl said. “The fact that Auburn put itself in this position is just incredible.”
Auburn (26-4, 14-3 SEC) led by 19 in the first half and by 40-28 at the half, but got outscored 33-21 in the second half for a 61-61 tie. Then it outscored State 20-7 in overtime, putting up one less point in five minutes than it did in the previous 20 for the win.
“I’d say this is probably one of the best regular season wins I’ve had in a long career,” said the 61-year-old Pearl, who won an SEC title in 2008 as Tennessee’s coach. “To win a championship on the road at a really good place against a really good team with our backs up against the wall is special.”
There was a decent number of Auburn fans who made the trip hoping to experience something that had happened only twice in more than two decades.
“They wanted to see history made,” Pearl said. “They wanted to be here when we won this championship. You know Kentucky is obviously famous in our league for their fans traveling. I don’t know that this year if any team traveled more than Auburn fans. I think you’re going to see that in Tampa, as well. And all I can tell you is that I’m grateful.”
The SEC Tournament opens Wednesday in Tampa, Florida. Auburn has won just two of those – in 1985 under coach Sonny Smith and in 2019 under Pearl, who also took Auburn to its first Final Four that season.
“You do feel a responsibility to try to reward this Auburn family with all its support,” Pearl said. “People take time off work to travel.”
Auburn will play its last home game Saturday and can clinch sole possession of the regular season title with a win over South Carolina (18-11, 9-8) in a 1 p.m. eastern game on the SEC Network. The Tigers clinched a tie with the win Wednesday.
Three teams remain tied one game behind Auburn. Two of those will play Saturday as No. 14 Arkansas (24-6, 13-4) is at No. 13 Tennessee (22-7, 13-4) at noon on ESPN. No. 7 Kentucky (24-6, 13-4) plays at Florida (19-11, 9-8) at 2 p.m. on CBS.
Auburn has the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed at the SEC Tournament over Kentucky with a head-to-head victory. Arkansas and Tennessee are each 1-0 against Auburn.
Pearl’s team has not been at its best in recent weeks though, and it nearly lost for the fourth time in seven games Wednesday.
“Mississippi State had the building rocking, and they were playing great,” Pearl said. “And just, somehow, our guys sucked it up. I think because they’re competitors, and they wanted this championship.”
Mississippi State (17-13, 8-9) is still one of nine SEC teams with a chance at the NCAA Tournament, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, if the Bulldogs can win at Texas A&M (19-11, 8-9) on Saturday (SEC Network, 8:30 p.m.) and advance to the semifinals or final of the SEC Tournament.
The Aggies are in that same situation, but are hotter with an impressive 87-71 win at No. 25 Alabama on Wednesday night. It was A&M’s fourth win in five games after losing eight straight.
Florida is also on the NCAA Tournament bubble after winning three of its last four, including a 63-62 win at home over Auburn on Feb. 19.
LSU (20-10, 8-9) blew a chance at a high quality win Wednesday at Arkansas in a 77-76 loss, but Lunardi still has the Tigers as a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament. LSU hosts Alabama (19-11, 9-8) at noon Saturday on CBS.
The Tide remains a No. 5 seed by Lunardi with Auburn a No. 1, Kentucky a No. 2, Tennessee a No. 3 and Arkansas a No. 4.
“There are about seven or eight teams that could have won this thing,” Pearl said. “We simply have a will to win and a desire to make history.”