Following a defensive first half, Auburn used a 52 point, 55.2% shooting performance to propel to the round of 32, defeating Iowa 83-75.
The No. 9 Auburn Tigers traveled to Birmingham, AL to take on the No. 8 Iowa Hawkeyes inside Legacy Arena on March 16, 2023 in the first round of the NCAA Men’s March Madness Tournament.
The Auburn Tigers entered the round of 64 losing 9 of their last 13 games dating back to January 25, with scoring inconsistencies being at the wrong end of the accusing pointed fingers. However, Auburn brought in a top 30 adjusted defensive rating to lean on when the droughts appeared.
Meanwhile, the Iowa Hawkeyes hoisted the third ranked adjusted offense in the country, scoring over 80 points per game. Conversely, an adjusted defensive rating of 168th was the explicit ‘Achilles heel' of the Hawkeyes.
On paper, the questions entering the game were based on each team going up against the other’s strength, and in what ways could one team maximize the other’s weakness. Could Auburn use their pressuring defense to slow down the high octane Hawkeye offense and turn defense into offense? Or could Iowa use their offense to force an erratic Auburn offense to desperately go point for point?
The first round matchup was a tale of two very different halves, providing bits of answers in each contrasting twenty minutes.
The first half provided viewers with a very defensive game, as both teams shot 38% from the field, and were a combined 1-18 from behind the three point line. Auburn took a 5 point lead into halftime.
Auburn’s Johni Broome had 8 points and 6 rebounds at the break to lead the Tigers. Senior guard Allen Flanigan also used his size to collect 7 boards.
Filip Rebraca led all scorers with 10, however Iowa’s leading scorer, Kris Murray (20.4 PPG), was held to 4 points on 1-7 shooting.
“To hold them to 26 points in the half was a great effort”, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said pleasingly about his defense in the first half.
The halftime message for both teams was (...probably) in regard to scoring, as it was the defensive side of the ball that turned into the flaw in the second half. Both teams erupted offensively, each striking for 7 triples.
The Tigers shot 55.2% (16-29) throughout the second half, in large part thanks to the bench. Both KD Johnson and Tre Donaldson were flawless, going a combined 6-6 (5-5 from 3) from the field and 20 points between the two. 17 of these points were scored with a 2:31 span, which helped stretch the lead to 17 at one point for the Tigers.
“I work my butt off to be able to shoot the ball in big moments like that… As a freshman, I wanted to be prepared mentally. I feel like I’m ahead of all freshmen because I can be in big moments and not get rattled”, Tre Donaldson said following his big time performance.
Coach Pearl had praise for both guards.
“He’s got a toughness about him, a swag, a confidence. He did not look like a freshman at all”, Pearl said about Donaldson’s second half play.
“He giveth and taketh away”, Pearl said about Auburn’s wildcard KD Johnson. “He’s been giveth-ing more lately”.
The Hawkeyes used a run of their own to cut the deficit to only four, but the Tigers used an efficient 11-13 stat at the free throw within the final four minutes to remain out of reach. Wendell Green Jr. was 6-6 during that stretch (8-8 in the game) that set and added to the Auburn record for consecutive free throws made (record was 28, Green now at 34).
“We knew they weren’t going to go away. We relied on each other to box out, rebound and contest shots”, Johni Broome said about the Hawkeye offense down the stretch. “That’s what we did to finish the game”.
The Tigers had two players finish with double-doubles. Broome took advantage of his length on the interior, as he finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 blocks. Allen Flanigan added 10 points and 10 rebounds.
The Tigers advance to the round of 32 and will now face the No. 1 seed (#2 overall) Houston Cougars (31-3) on Saturday, March 18 inside Legacy Arena in Birmingham, AL. This game will be broadcasted at 6:10 PM CT on TBS. Houston opens as a 5.5 point favorite, with ESPN projecting a final score of 68.5-63.