Auburn basketball has navigated road tests from a number of challengers in the bottom half of the SEC this season while maintaining its nation-leading win streak.
This entire time, coach Bruce Pearl hasn’t shied away from the reality that Auburn will lose a game eventually.
The one you don’t want to lose is the road game against the last-place rival.
Auburn avoided it by a hair. The Tigers squeaked out a 74-72 win at Georgia on Saturday, a regular-season sweep on Wendell Green Jr.’s last-second layup and extending the streak to 19 games. Auburn (22-1, 10-0 SEC) was led by former Georgia guard KD Johnson’s 20 points and Green’s 19.
Ripple effect of Zep Jasper’s absence
Starting point guard Zep Jasper was out with a non-COVID illness Saturday, missing his first game of the season. He has been Auburn’s two-way glue guy, not scoring often but bringing potent defense and mistake-free facilitation.
The Georgia game made it clear how valuable he is.
Auburn had local walk-on senior Preston Cook bringing the ball up the floor in the last 10 minutes of a pressure cooker. The depth was stretched.
A theme this season has been Pearl’s continuing tendency to make frequent substitutions and keep players under 30 minutes per game. On Saturday, he kept Johnson in the game for the first 10-plus minutes, even as he started 1-for-5 from the field. Chris Moore played first-half minutes, which was also unusual for an SEC game.
Auburn had three players over 30 minutes, which is a rarity: Green (36), Johnson (33) and Jabari Smith (31).
Guards more involved than two best players
Johnson and Green complete the backcourt trio with Jasper. They’re both effective offensive players, but their involvement Saturday was disproportionate to Auburn’s two best players, Smith and Walker Kessler.
In the first half, it worked when Green had 15 points on 4-for-6 outside shooting. Nothing came easy for Johnson, but he accumulated 12 points by the break.
In the second half, the two guards started forcing bad shots while Kessler and Smith stood idle. Green and Johnson combined to shoot 4-for-21 while Smith and Kessler attempted three shots each.
But it worked out in the last minute. Johnson tied the game with 38 seconds on a drive. Green was 0-for-9 in the half, until Kessler pulled down a rebound with 10 seconds left and dished the outlet pass to him. Pearl didn’t call timeout. Green nearly lost possession as he attacked the rim, but he gathered himself and banked the game-winner with 3.3 seconds left.
Fouling kept Georgia in the game
Auburn’s interior defense looked dominant again early. Georgia made 6 of 28 shots from the field in the first half. In Auburn’s first 60 minutes of basketball this week, it allowed 15 made 2-pointers (five per half, one every four minutes).
But the Bulldogs shot 16 of 22 at the foul line in the half, accounting for more than half of their points in a 42-30 game. Pearl was displeased with how often Auburn fouled against Alabama, too. It’s a side effect of intense defense. Then the guarding became less disciplined after halftime as Georgia shot 18-for-31, including 16-for-23 inside the arc. The Tigers left their feet on fakes more.
Ironically, Georgia ended up losing the game at the stripe. It led 66-64 with 3:24 left when a missed front end kept Auburn within one score. And Aaron Cook went to the line after a go-ahead bucket in the last minute, but he missed the bonus point that might have changed how Auburn approached the final 55 seconds.