Justin Powell had himself quite the Auburn Arena debut. The freshman finished with team-high 26 points in Auburn’s 90-81 win over South Alabama on Friday night.
“You tell me the last, best freshman home debut,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. “I’ll put it up against that one. You can tell he’s got great fundamentals and he certainly stepped up big tonight.”
From the opening tip, the freshman from Prospect, Kentucky, came ready to play. He hit the first points of the game, a 3-point shot, just 12 seconds into the contest. It was only a preview of what was to come from No. 24.
In his first career collegiate start, Powell was red-hot from 3-point range, shooting 7-of-9 from beyond the arc. All of Powell’s points from the field came from deep and he played a career-high 31 minutes in the win. With a performance like tonight, it's expected that Powell will see quite a bit of playing time in the future.
“BP (Pearl) told me earlier at the beginning of the week that ‘You got to be more aggressive, more assertive,” Powell said. “I went out there tonight thinking about that and the guys did a good job of finding me, so that made it easy for me.”
It was not just Powell that was getting involved in the 3-point contest, seven different Tigers hit from deep. As a team, the Tigers set a program record and tied an SEC record for the most made 3-pointers in a game, with 22 finding their way through the net.
“Our spacing and offensive efficiency were off the charts,” Pearl said. “We spread it and shot it pretty well.”
Auburn began the game on a 16-2 run, highlighted by a multitude of 3-pointers by a multitude of Tigers. Powell, Allen Flanigan, Jamal Johnson and Jaylin Williams all knocked down 3-point shots within the first six minutes of play.
The quick start was all Auburn needed to take charge of the game, the Jaguars never led at any point in the game.
The Tigers continued to pile on the 3-point shots in the first half, seeing its lead grow as large as 22 points. South Alabama closed the first half on a 7-0 run to bring it within 15 and Auburn went into the locker rooms with a 47-32 lead. It was a season-high for points scored in the first half.
It was a similar scene in the second half, as the Tigers continued to take shots from the 3-point range. Auburn was able to take advantage of South Alabama’s zone defense, something that the Tigers had prepped for throughout the week.
“We knew they were coming out in the zone,” sophomore guard Devan Cambridge said. “That just boosted our confidence. We had good plays for the zone, everybody was just shooting into everybody’s fire.”
With Sharife Cooper still waiting on word from the NCAA regarding his eligibility, Auburn has needed someone to take charge running the point guard position. Powell has stepped in to fill that role and has found success in managing the floor.
“It’s just one of those things [Pearl] had confidence in me to do it,” Powell said. “I’ve been comfortable with it because [Pearl]’s been comfortable with me in it.”
At point guard on Friday, Powell was able to showcase his ability to spread the ball around. He led the team with nine assists, the next closest Tigers were Williams and J.T. Thor with four. Auburn’s ball movement was effective against the zone, as quick passes allowed the Tigers open shots from outside the arc.
Out of Auburn’s 54 shots on the evening, only 13 of them came from 2-point range. Because of this, the Tigers didn’t get to the line often, shooting just 14 free throws. Ten of these came within the final minute, as the Jaguars began fouling as an attempt to prolong the game. This is something Pearl said the team can improve on.
“We’ve got to pick up our physicality,” Pearl said. “Our whole front line is young, we’ve got to do a better job of getting them more touches and getting more physical from them.”
Auburn has over a week off before its next game after playing four games in eight days. The Tigers face off against Memphis next Saturday on Dec. 12 in Atlanta, with tip-off set for 8 p.m. CST.