Auburn has played a high-quality non-conference schedule in its first 12 games, with five foes sitting in the top 70 of the NET rankings. Wednesday night, the Tigers welcomed a top-40 squad into Auburn Arena for a showdown with a familiar foe in the Murray State Racers. Three seasons ago, the Racers visited Auburn captained by point guard Ja Morant, who went on to be selected second overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. The Tigers would win by the skin of their teeth, 93-88.
Three years to the day following that high-octane slugfest, Auburn topped Murray State again, this time by a score of 71-58. The Tigers spread the ball around, with three players scoring in double figures on their way to the team's third Quadrant 1 win of the young season.
The Walker Kessler Block Party continued, as he notched a season-high seven blocks. It was his seventh time in 12 games rejecting at least four shots, and his fifth time in the last six games alone. Kessler also tied for the team lead with 13 points, and he played clean as well, being hit with just one foul in 26 minutes of play.
The moment everyone will remember, though, came from backup point guard Wendell Green, Jr. With just shy of 14 minutes remaining in the second half, the Tigers led by 11 points. Some mistakes left the ball in Green's hands with about four seconds left on the shot clock... on the wrong side of the court.
No matter. The transfer from Eastern Kentucky has already made waves this season with his seemingly limitless range on the floor. Green turned on the jets and launched a desperate heave from the other side of the half-court line. His shot sailed over the fingertips of a Murray State defender, and Green paused at center-court to watch the ball drop through the net for the most electrifying triple of Auburn's season.
"When it went in, I was shocked just like everybody else," Green said of the shot.
"I wasn't shocked," added Kessler, seated next to Green during the press conference. Neither was the bench, according to head coach Bruce Pearl.
Green made his mark in other areas as well, tying for the team lead with ten rebounds. Green noted that he grabbed zero boards last weekend against Saint Louis, so the improvement from the Tigers' point guard meant a lot.
Not since high school, Green said, had he grabbed so many rebounds, "When I was playing everybody my size."
For all of the memorable offensive fireworks, where the Tigers really shined was on defense. Murray State has averaged 86.0 points per game this season. Auburn held them to 58. The Racers' offense largely ran through Tevin Brown, who scored 22 points. Only one other Racer scored in double figures.
The Tigers leaned on stellar rebounding to silence the Racers' high-powered attack, grabbing 48 boards to Murray State's 33. 34 of those came on defense, limiting Murray State's second chance opportunities so much that it kept the Racers from tearing their way back into the game.
Allen Flanigan's potential return has been a story for most of the week, and he was labeled a game-time decision by the staff going into Wednesday. Flanigan ended up seeing 12 minutes off the bench, but struggled to find offensive momentum. Just one of his six attempts resulted in points.
Coach Pearl was hardly concerned. It was a "tough game" to get the Tigers' most experienced guard back with the team, thanks to Murray State's tenacious guard play. Flanigan is also still a work-in-progress as he looks to fully recover from an Achilles injury back in September. Overall, Pearl liked what he saw, saying that Flanigan "looked like he belonged."
Flanigan's return also strengthens Auburn's rotation to 11 bona-fide players. When the Tigers go to the bench, they "don't drop off," according to Pearl. In the first half, Jaylin Williams led the team in scoring. That kind of depth will be critical for the upcoming SEC slate. The conference is arguably as strong and as deep as it's ever been.
But Pearl believes in what he's seen from his Tigers. "We've gotten a lot better in the month of December... boy-oh-boy, have we made progress," he said. The Tigers are 4-0 with one more game on the docket this month.
The SEC schedule will open up with a tangle against an undefeated LSU squad. Like Auburn, Will Wade's Tigers hoarded talent in the offseason through the transfer portal. With a jam-packed rotation, it's all about maintaining the chemistry this team has built up so far, and it's easy to see the concerns of having so many mouths to feed.
The Tigers have been quick to nip that kind of talk in the bud. "We're not worried about individual stats. Whoever goes off, goes off," said Wendell Green.
"As long as the guys don't care about their individual numbers... we'll be fine," said Bruce Pearl.
Auburn and LSU will tip off Wednesday, December 29th at 7:00 p.m. EST.