Auburn’s defense kept Loyola to just 21 points in the second half as the Tigers won 62-53 on Thanksgiving Day at the Battle 4 Atlantis basketball tournament on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. The Tigers have one game left in the event and will play against Syracuse on Friday at 3:30 PM CST (ESPN2 TV coverage).
The Tigers led by just two points at halftime, while Loyola scored 62 percent of his field goals, including 6-13 on three. In the second half, the Tigers held the Ramblers to 31 percent shooting from the field and 1-10 on three balls.
At the point of criticism, the Auburn defense stepped up and allowed Loyola to make just one of his last seven shots.
With the win, the Tigers improved to 4-1 using a double-double by Walker Kessler, who scored 13 points and racked up a game-high 10 rebounds while adding four blocked shots on a game-high. He scored 5-12 field goals, 1-3 treys and was 2-5 at the foul line. Kessler also closed on Wednesday with a double-double against UConn.
Kessler said it was challenging for the Tigers to play double overtime against UConn and get on the field for less than 24 hours to play Loyola. “It was super tough,” he said. “UConn is a very physical team and we were tired, but we did a great job or recovered. Our trainers took excellent care of us. Our depth allowed everyone to play. We only have five guys playing or seven guys playing. “
The Tigers used 10 players and everyone scored. The only player who saw less than 10 minutes of action was walk-on guard Lior Berman, who was on the field for eight minutes.
Freshman forward Jabari Smith, who scored 7-9 field goals, led all scorers by 14 points while adding four rebounds. Wendell Green scored 10 points for the Tigers as he scored 3-8 field goals, while adding four assists on four turnovers and three steals.
Auburn’s offensive play was ordinary, but the Tigers helped their cause by winning the rebounding battle 36-26. Bruce Pearl’s team only managed to score 43.6 percent of field goals (24-55) and 5-18 three-pointers. The Tigers were 9-14 at the foul line.
The Ramblers, who fell to 4-2 this season, finished 44.7 percent (21-47) of the field as they made 7-23 threes and 4-9 free throws.
“We are very happy with the win,” said Pearl. “Jabari, I think he has shown that he is the best player here. Walker, I think he has shown that he is the best rim protector here and I thought our kids really showed up.”
Commenting on his team’s defensive success after halftime, Pearl said: “They (Loyola) were tired and I think our defense was a little worn out. them out a bit. Michigan State (Loyola’s opponent on Wednesday) is a physical team. We play very aggressively. I think they were just tired. I thought we did a good job of switching, keeping body on body.
“If they put the ball on the ground, they want to make an extra pass,” Pearl said. “I thought our guys showed a lot of discipline to match each other, so it was really good. That’s an NCAA Tournament team. That team is chosen to win their league (Missouri Valley Conference). They’ve been together for about three years now, we’ve been together for about three months.”
The game featured 10 lead changes before Auburn moved forward 41-40 with 15:25 left on back-to-back three-point bombs from Green. The Tigers built up the margin to 56-46 with 4:25 left on a free throw by Kessler. The Ramblers followed with a three-point basket, but Auburn didn’t give up in the final two minutes and 51 seconds to hold onto the lead.
Auburn scored seven points in the first minute before the Ramblers rallied to take an 11-10 lead. Auburn extended the lead to 22-15 on a rebound basket from Kessler at 9:54, but couldn’t get away from the Ramblers, who made 6-13 treys in the first half and 61.9 percent (13-21) shots in the period.
Auburn made just one of his last seven shots in the first half, a jumper by Zep Jasper who put the Tigers on top 34-32 during the break. KD Johnson, Kessler and Devan Cambridge led the Tigers in the first half by seven points apiece.
In the first half, Auburn scored 13-27 field goals (48.1 percent), 3-7 threes and 5-6 free throws.
The Tigers had a rebounding advantage of 13-9 at halftime and forced 12 turnovers, five fewer than they committed, for an 18-11 lead in points on turnover.
Game status: The Tigers only left the Ramblers to grab just five offensive rebounds after giving up 14 on Wednesday in a 114-109 loss to UConn.
Worth mentioning, part 1: The Tigers blocked seven shots and forced 18 turnovers. Auburn had a 22-18 lead in points on sales.
Worth mentioning, part 2: Smith led the Tigers in the plus/minus statistic. The Tigers defeated the Ramblers in his 29 minutes on the field. Cambridge, who scored 3-4 field goals and scored seven points while adding a few steals, was next on plus 11.
Mixed results: Jasper struggled to shoot the basketball, scoring just 1-9 field goals, but racking up a game-high six assists in 23 minutes on one turnover.
Elimination second half: Auburn’s top scorer of the season, Johnson, did not get a run in the second half. The guard finished with seven points as he made 1-6 field goals and 4-4 three pitches. He led the Tigers in steals with four.
Next one: The Tigers will play at 3:30 PM CST against Syracuse, which defeated Arizona State on Thursday night. The game will air on ESPN2.
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