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Strong first half and Okoro lead Auburn to 80-76 Victory

Auburn forward Isaac Okoro (23) in the second half.
Auburn MBB vs Iowa St on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020 in Auburn, Ala. 
Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics
Auburn forward Isaac Okoro (23) in the second half. Auburn MBB vs Iowa St on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020 in Auburn, Ala. Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics


Auburn survived a late rally by Iowa State on Saturday morning, claiming a 80-76 victory over the Cyclones in the Big 12/SEC challenge.

After falling behind 4-0 early, the Tigers relied on the three ball to go on a 12-2 run that put them in front 12-6. This got the offense going early, something Auburn has struggled with in recent games. In front of a sold out crowd, Auburn’s Anfernee McLemore led the charge in a first half where nine 3-pointers were made by Auburn. McLemore hit three of them, his only points of the game. 

“When Anfernee McLemore is making shots, things really open up for us offensively,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said.

Since the loss at Florida, Auburn’s been focusing more on “Making the extra pass” according Samir Doughty. The Tigers totaled 15 assists in their two road losses and have bounced back with a combined 30 assists over the South Carolina and Iowa State games. Saturday, Auburn’s spacing and open looks from beyond the arc propelled the team to gain a win for the SEC.

“The first half really dictated [the game],” Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm said. “We gave up nine threes in the first half....that was the tale of the tape, the way they shot in the first half.”

A win for Auburn in the SEC Challenge was big for the Tigers. Since the inception of the challenge in 2013, Auburn was 1-3 in Big 12/SEC Challenge games prior to Saturday. The Tigers had lost the first three games of the challenge, losing at Iowa State (2013), at Texas Tech (2014) and versus Oklahoma State (2016), before defeating TCU on the road 88-80 in 2017.

Now riding a two-game winning streak in the challenge, head coach Bruce Pearl says “Auburn is not holding the league down any longer in men’s basketball.”

In the second half the offense shifted, only knocking down one 3-pointer in the final 20 minutes. Rather, the team leaned on star freshman guard Isaac Okoro, who totaled 14 of his team-leading 19 points in the second half. 

“We knew [Iowa State] had problems guarding Isaac at the end of the game, so everybody wanted the ball in his hands. When one of our players is hot, we’re gonna get him the basketball,” Doughty said about Okoro’s shooting performance down the stretch.

Okoro was physical in getting the ball to the basket, making five layups down low. On two of the layups, the 6 foot 6 inch, 225-pound freshman was fouled and given the chance to complete the and-one. Doughty was complimentary on Okoro’s ability to finish down low following the game.

“When he first got here, I was saying that he was one of the best finishers I’ve ever met or witnessed in person,” Doughty said. “That’s no surprise because of his work ethic, he’s in the gym more than anybody.”

Other than a final 14-4 run by the Cyclones to finish the game, the Auburn defense played rather well. Iowa State shot well below its average, shooting 36.2% on Saturday compared to its season average of 45.2% from the field. The Cyclones were 7-of-27 (25.9%) from the 3-point range, lower than their season average of 31.7%.

“To hold a good offensive team to 36% is solid. That’s how you win,” Pearl said.  

Auburn will head to Oxford, Mississippi, to face the Ole Miss Rebels on Tuesday night. The Rebels swept the two-game series last season, winning 82-67 in Oxford and 60-55 in Auburn. 

“I promise you that will have my complete and undivided attention,” Pearl said about the Ole Miss game.

The tip-off for that game will be at 8:00 p.m. CST and will be broadcast on ESPNU.

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