Auburn came into its final home game of the regular season looking to capture the outright SEC regular season championship. The only thing standing in their way was the pesky Gamecocks of South Carolina. I hope fans stocked up on toilet paper to roll Toomer’s Corner, because the Tigers held off a late rally from Frank Martin’s squad and won the SEC 82-71, along with the #1 seed in Tampa.
With Auburn and Tennessee’s home wins today: The top four teams in the SEC finished 67-1 at home this season and were a one-point loss away from 68-0. It looked as if the Tigers would run away with this game, but the Gamecocks went on an 11-0 run late in the second half to keep things somewhat close.
But this day belonged to Bruce Pearl and the Tigers, who finished the regular season 27-4 and are looking to continue playing basketball into early April.
“It’s all about the players. To be 15-3 in this league says they came to play every night. That is virtually impossible to do when you’re dealing with 18-, 19- and 20-year-old kids. Our guys came to play every single night. We took no team for granted. They locked in, they grinded. The lessons these guys learned because of their own discipline are going to serve them well for the rest of their lives. They know how to win, they know how to compete, they know how to train, they know how to prepare. The coaching staff did a phenomenal job as well. I’ve got the best staff in the country.
“That chapter is closed, the regular season. Now it’s postseason, and it’s also March. This is when the stakes are higher and the reward is even greater. So can we get hot? That’s the deal. Can we get hot? Our defense will carry us, but to win another championship, we’re going to have to pick it up offensively.”
It was another big night for Jabari Smith, who finished the game with 21 points and 6 rebounds, adding to his fantastic stats on the year. Auburn finished the first half on a 24-9 run, led by 15 points from Smith.
He spoke after the game about going to a school that would put him in the best position to succeed and win championships.
“That’s why I came here – to win. I thought this school was going to put me in the best position to win a national championship, win the SEC, win all these accolades that we finally earned. I am not surprised at all that we won it. It feels good and I just want to keep going.”
At one point in the second half South Carolina trailed by 19 points, but continued to battle back and get it within seven points at the 1:15 mark in the second half. It was just another game of runs for Auburn, even in the first half when they were up by 19, then South Carolina got it back within 2 points, before the Tigers got back to the hot shooting.
The Tigers were just too much to handle for the Gamecocks on Saturday.
There have been games this season where Bruce Pearl has worried about the play from his guards, especially getting to the basket. But K.D. Johnson finished with 18 points, while Wendell Green Jr. added 10 points. Where the Tigers are going to be tough over the next few weeks will be inside the paint with Walker Kessler, who had 11 points. The ability of Auburn to beat you on the boards and in transition is what can lead this team deep into both tournaments.
Now the Tigers cut down the nets inside Auburn Arena, but the job is just starting. This team has the capability to cut down even more nets, starting in Tampa.