Auburn’s current five seniors have become the winningest class in the Tigers’ program history as they prepare for Saturday’s home game against Georgia, but it took a freshman to get them there.
Auburn needed newcomer Isaac Okoro’s career-high 23 points and six rebounds to survive Vanderbilt’s upset bid Wednesday night, giving the No. 5 Tigers the 83-79 victory and earning the group of forward Danjel Purifoy, center Austin Wiley, forward Anfernee McLemore, and guards Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick their 88th career victory, one more than 2000-01 seniors managed in their careers.
“We don’t have five seniors,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said, referring to Okoro, a freshman forward. “We have six. He plays like a senior, knows how to communicate, not afraid of the moment, makes big plays.”
Okoro’s dunk and resulting free throw after being fouled gave the Tigers an 11-point second-half lead, and his free throw with 26 seconds left helped secure the win.
The Tigers (14-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) now get the opportunity to extend their class record at home against the unranked Bulldogs. A 15th win also would mark the third-best start to a season for Auburn behind only the 19-0 mark of the 1958-59 team and the 17-0 beginning for the 1998-99 club.
Georgia (10-4, 0-1 SEC) comes in off a 78-69 home loss to No. 14 Kentucky. It was a disappointing result after the Bulldogs led the Wildcats 37-31 at halftime, but coach Tom Crean expects his players to be ready.
“I told them that what we’re getting ready to deal with on Saturday will be the tougher than anything we’ve done all year,” Crean said. “The guys that are competitive and have the make-up of fighting and competing will show up for it.”
Crean noted that his team included 10 newcomers who were playing their first SEC game, one of which was forward Anthony Edwards, one of the top freshmen in the country. Edwards scored 23 points and had five rebounds in the loss to Kentucky and is averaging 18.7 and 4.9, respectively, for the season.
“We took a tough loss today,” Edwards said, “but we are going to come back and be better.”
Like the Bulldogs, the Tigers also had issues in the second half against Vanderbilt. They let all of a 14-point second-half lead get away in shooting only 38 percent over the final 20 minutes, allowing Vandy to tie the game at 79-79 in the final minute.
The Tigers made only 5 of 20 3-point shots for the game.
“I’m disappointed the way we’re shooting the basketball,” Pearl said. “We’re getting good shots.”
In their last two games, starting with the opening SEC win at Mississippi State, the Tigers are only 10 of 42 from long range.
“We can get better,” Pearl said. “We will. We’re a good team. Still not very good.”
But it helps when a freshman plays like a veteran, as Okoro did.
“He’s not a freshman in our eyes,” Purifoy said. “He plays like a man, and that’s what we expect from him.”
–Field Level Media