Bruce Pearl walked off the court of Auburn Arena for the final time in the 2020-2021 season surrounded by his players, who were wearing t-shirts that read “600 Wins.” The seventh-year head coach reached 600 career wins on Saturday, as his Tigers defeated Mississippi State 78-71.
“It was cool,” said head coach Bruce Pearl on 600 wins. “When we were losing earlier in the year, I was not even thinking about it. I’m just grateful to my coaches, staff, managers, athletic directors that have hired me and the fans. I keep score, I do. 600 is a big number; 700 would be even better.”
It may perhaps be the final time another Auburn fan-favorite walks off the court, as well.
Although he didn’t dress out for the game, Sharife Cooper was on the sidelines to support his teammates. By the time the game was over, Cooper left the court as chants of “One more year” rang throughout the arena.
If it is indeed Coopers’ last time in an Auburn Arena as a player, his first and only season was nothing short of impressive. He finished his freshman season averaging 20.2 points per game, 8.1 assists per game and 4.3 rebounds per game.
In the first five minutes of the game, all of Auburn’s shots from the field came from downtown. The Tigers shot 3-of-9 from 3-point range to open the game, grabbing a 9-4 lead in the process. It was a lead they held for most of the first half.
Several times Mississippi State was able to close the gap to two or three points, but Auburn responded by extending the lead back to four or five each time. With just under seven to go in the first, Auburn went on a quick 6-0 run after Devan Cambridge and Jaylin Williams hit a pair of 3-pointers. It pushed the Auburn lead to 27-18, its largest lead of the half.
The 3-point shots didn’t stop coming, either. The Tigers finished the first half with 23 attempts from downtown. It’s the most first-half 3-point attempts Auburn has had in an SEC game this season and second-most on the year.
Jamal Johnson had two of the Tigers’ six first-half 3-pointers. JT Thor, Allen Flanigan, Cambridge and Williams made up the rest, with each Tiger knocking down a triple in the first half.
Johnson finished with 14 points, knocking down a team-high four 3-pointers, while Williams finished with 18 points. Thor nearly had a double-double, finishing with 10 points and a team-high nine rebounds.
“The potential with JT [Thor], it’s through the roof,” Flanigan said. “He’s big, he can shoot the ball, he can put it on the floor, he can guard one through five. Just him taking advantage of the weight room, getting bigger, stronger. He’ll be a scary sight next season.
However, Mississippi State climbed out of the nine-point deficit with 6:02 left in the first half. The Bulldogs closed the final six minutes of the half on a 16-5 run to take a 34-32 lead into halftime, its first lead of the game.
After a couple of back-and-forth baskets from both teams to open the second half, Mississippi State’s Molinar Iverson hit a triple to give the Bulldogs their largest lead at five. Down 44-39, Auburn responded with an 8-2 run to retake the lead at 47-46.
The lead did not hold, as was true with almost any lead in the second half. There were nine lead changes in the second half, in a game where neither team seemed to have much of an advantage for the first 15 minutes of the second.
That was until a Dylan Cardwell dunk and a Flanigan triple forced Mississippi State to take a timeout, igniting the home crowd. Flanigan was Auburn’s leading scorer during the afternoon with 22 points, 17 of which came in the second half.
“[Flanigan] got downhill, he turned the corner,” Pearl said. “Scored through the contact, that’s what he’s gotta do. The fact that he played 20 minutes in the second half and didn’t have a turnover, that’s huge. There’s a lot of upside, a lot more to give.”
The quick burst of offense was the dagger for the Bulldogs and they were never able to come back. Auburn closed the game out at the free-throw line, where it hit 13-of-15 shots from the charity stripe.
“Only 12 guys on scholarship. We had a couple guys hurt, who didn't play,” Pearl said about this season. “That roster got pretty thin. The guys that had the opportunity stepped up and got better. We finished on a high note.”
Because of the self-imposed postseason ban Auburn placed on itself, the Tigers will not participate in the SEC and NCAA tournaments, ending their season in Auburn.