What did we learn today?: Nobody in the home locker room was scared to meet the emotion of this rivalry or reputation of Auburn and its shiny new Final Four banner head on. The Tigers aren’t quite the same team that went on a massive postseason roll last March, but they returned several key pieces, added talented newcomers and had master motivator and underrated tactician Bruce Pearl on the bench once again.
But Bama didn’t flinch when it came to playing uptempo, even as AU has torn through the SEC the last two seasons by running and gunning threes. Nate Oats didn’t flinch when it came time to show some swagger on behalf of his team in the face of an inflammatory Anfernee McLemore quote that got recycled this week. The players on the floor didn’t flinch when 3-point opportunities dried up and Auburn got physical in the paint, as the Crimson Tide went 25-for-30 at the foul line after halftime. Bama did not play a perfect offensive game, but it played a gritty, energized one and never trailed for a second of Nate Oats’ first signature win at the Capstone.
Meanwhile the Tigers were in disarray, taking rushed shots and playing careless with the basketball all night. The previous gold standard team for quick play in the SEC found out Bama plays even faster, and Auburn ran itself right out of contention in a futile effort to keep up.
What was the best part of the game?: The offense was stuck in low gear before halftime, but Alex Reese provided a matchup nightmare for the Tigers to help the Tide build a nine-point edge. A pair of 3-pointers helped bring Auburn’s big men away from the paint to try and stop him. That helped open scoring opportunities in the lane, including one for Reese where he deftly blew by Austin Wiley from the corner and rolled downhill for the score. And his lone assist was a work of art, a home run ball to John Petty from under his own basket following a Pearl timeout to set up the press. The junior from Pelham scored 10 of his 13 points in the first half before a knee contusion limited him to 20 minutes.
Who was the star?: Kira Lewis made just one 3-pointer on a night where the Tide was limited to six overall, but he filled up the scoresheet with near-perfect foul shooting and lightning-quick drives to the rim past ill-positioned Auburn defenders. He finished with 25 points on 8-for-14 shooting and also had three assists.
What were the biggest concerns?: The Crimson Tide was just a couple of whistles away from running into severe trouble in the post. Reese picked up two first-half fouls and very nearly got a third. Herbert Jones had a splendid game with 14 points and 12 rebounds, but he also rang up four fouls, many of the undisciplined variety. Javian Davis had four fouls in 12 minutes and Galin Smith added three in seven. Had Wiley not run into foul problems of his own that limited him to 20 minutes, Auburn had a matchup it could exploit. Bama is already at a disadvantage inside; it can’t afford to dig itself a deeper hole very often.
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