AUBURN, Ala. (AP)Auburn’s outside shots weren’t falling in its season opener but that didn’t matter much because the defense was on point.
Wendell Green Jr. scored 16 points while K.D. Johnson and Johni Broome each had 12 to lead the 15th-ranked Tigers to a 70-52 victory over George Mason on Monday night.
”Our defense was really good,” coach Bruce Pearl said. ”Rim protection was really good. I think we wore them down.”
The Tigers weren’t really challenged much in their first game since losing NBA first-round draft picks Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler. Green and Johnson are the top returnees on a team picked to finish fourth in the Southeastern Conference after rising to No. 1 in the nation for the first time in program history last season.
Neither team managed to hit 40% of their shots, but Auburn forced 19 turnovers and contained George Mason star Josh Oduro. That overcame 4-of-25 shooting (16%) from 3-point range, including Johnson’s 2-of-9 performance.
”We’re going to rely on our defense, and defense wins championships,” Johnson said.
Broome enjoyed a solid debut for Auburn as one of the players Pearl brought in to replace the two big men. The transfer from Morehead State had six rebounds and four of the Tigers’ 10 blocked shots.
Returning big man Dylan Cardwell had nine rebounds and five blocks.
”It’s a good start,” Pearl said. ”Obviously if we continue to shoot the ball poorly, then we’ll have concerns. I’m not concerned now, but we’ve got to shoot it better.”
Ronald Polite III led George Mason with 10 points, and Victor Bailey Jr. had nine. Oduro, the leading scorer in the Atlantic 10 Conference last season, had eight points and played most of the second half in foul trouble.
”Our ball security and our defensive rebounding are our No. 1 areas we need to improve on,” George Mason coach Kim English said. ”And I wanted to test it out against the best right off the bat.
”We’ve got to keep improving and getting better. Obviously a humbling experience for our group.”
The Patriots hit their last five shots of the first half to trim an 18-point deficit to 31-24 by halftime. They closed on a 13-2 run that started with three straight 3-pointers after missing their first seven and cut it to six points early in the second half but couldn’t keep it close.
English said he figured other Auburn returnees would be eager to emerge following the departures of Smith and Kessler.
”They wanted to show that it’s their time to step up and they did that,” the George Mason coach said. ”That was the thing, who was it going to be? Who was going to be the guy on their team that stepped up and I think they did it collectively. They all had their moments.”
George Mason: Opened a season on the road for the first time since 2008. … Got outrebounded 48-37. … Beat Maryland and Georgia on the road last season but couldn’t overcome another Power Five team.
Auburn: The Tigers have won all nine openers under Pearl. They’ve won 39 straight non-conference games at home.
Pearl is a fan of English, a former Missouri player and Tennessee assistant starting his second year as a head coach.
”I tried to recruit him when he went to Missouri,” Pearl said. ”I’m a big fan of his. I followed him. Very impressed with Kim English. Always have been, as a player and now as a coach.”
George Mason hosts Longmont on Friday night.
Auburn hosts South Florida on Friday night and plays its first four games at Neville Arena.
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