In their last two games against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, Auburn’s offense has struggled, shooting 32.7% and 34.7, respectively. On Wednesday night, however, Auburn’s offense returned to form. The Tigers shot 48.1% from the field and made 17 threes against Arkansas. Auburn accompanied their sharpshooting with great defense and was able to get out to a 22-1 lead to start the game.
“We got off to a very good start and made shots,” Auburn Head Coach Bruce Pearl said.“I think tonight we really locked in defensively and had great effort defensively and really rotated quickly on defense. That has been a key for us playing better basketball right now.”
After Auburn allowed 92 points and had a defensive meltdown at the end of the Mississippi State game on January 26th, Bruce Pearl has preached the need for the Tigers to improve on defense. The team has responded well, as displayed against Arkansas. Along with holding the Razorbacks to 56 points, Auburn’s defense caused Arkansas to shoot 32.8% from the field. The Tigers forced 15 turnovers and scored 24 points off of them.
Forward Anfernee McLemore echoed Bruce Pearl’s message on the team’s improved defense: "It's just an emphasis in the game plan. We kind of knew that was one of our downfalls early in league play. That's the reason we lost three in a row because we gave up 80 points a game. We kind of made it a big focus in practice and in games to just try and force turnovers and hold team under 60."
Auburn’s fast start was a great sign, as the Tigers struggled shooting throughout the Ole Miss game and in the first half of the Vanderbilt game. Bryce Brown led Auburn with 18 points and was five for eight from behind the arc.
In the last few games the Tigers have struggled on the boards, particularly last game against Vanderbilt, in which Auburn was outrebounded 43-27. Auburn improved in this area against Arkansas, as the Tigers outrebounded the Razorbacks 42-35. The steady increase in minutes for center Austin Wiley as he returns from his right lower leg injury should help Auburn on both ends of the floor with his presence in the paint and rebounding. Wiley played 13 minutes Wednesday night, the most playing time he has had since coming back from the injury.
This was a much important win for Auburn, as the Tigers prepare for a tough five game stretch to end the season. “You know, now we have five games left and I looked at this game as a game we had to have,” said Bruce Pearl. “We go to Rupp, Georgia, host Mississippi State, go to Alabama, and then we have Tennessee at home. That’s a pretty good next five games. We’re not going to be celebrating this. We’ll be trying to build on it.”
Auburn will look to keep the momentum going on Saturday as they have a difficult road battle against #4 Kentucky. The Tigers lost 82-80 against the Wildcats in their first matchup of the season. However, Austin Wiley was out injured for that game. Wiley will be available this time around, and the Tigers will look to take advantage of forward Reid Travis being out with a knee sprain for Kentucky. If Auburn is to pull off the upset though, it will be imperative for the Tigers to carry over their sharpshooting and quality defense against Kentucky.