AUBURN — Auburn didn’t fall prey to the upset disease that ensnared other ranked teams Saturday.
Following losses by No. 4 Duke, No. 7 Kansas, No. 12 Oklahoma, No. 21 Kentucky and No. 23 Florida all to unranked teams in a single day, Auburn took care of business easily against a last-place Vanderbilt team with a 93-81 win.
Along with the losses by Florida and Kentucky, the victory allowed Auburn (21-2, 9-1 SEC) to take essentially a three-game lead in the conference race with just eight games left. Auburn has a two-game lead over Tennessee (17-5, 7-3) but holds the tiebreaker over the Volunteers after the Tigers took home a 94-84 win in Knoxville on Jan. 2 in the league opener. The Tigers’ last Southeastern Conference regular-season title came in 1999, and that was only the second in program history.
"There's a lot of hazards on this back nine now," Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said of his team's final eight-game stretch. "There's water. There's sand and there's a lot of good teams so we'll just take it one hole at a time. But we really don't have a bogey yet but these holes are getting tougher."
Auburn ran out to a 22-point lead with 6:32 left in the first half as the Tigers made 8 of 14 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes of action. The Tigers’ active defense created issues for Vanderbilt (8-15, 2-8) from the opening tip. At one point, the Commodores had more turnovers (10) than points (nine) or field goal attempts (eight).
Before the under-16 minute media timeout, Auburn’s balanced scoring already had four players in double figures and four had hit a 3-point shot. Auburn's ball movement was evident as Jared Harper had a career-high 14 assists Saturday night on passes that mostly ended up in the arms of wide-open shooters.
Bryce Brown led the Tigers with 25 points on 5-of-7 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc. Mustapha Heron, who earned SEC player of the week honors earlier this week for the second time this season, ended with 23 points as the sophomore guard made 8 of 12 from the field.
USA Today bracket expert Shelby Mast had confirmed to the Montgomery Advertiser that with a convincing win Saturday night, Auburn would become the final No. 1 seed in his next projected NCAA tournament field to be published this morning.
The win broke a 13-game and 11-year winning streak for Vanderbilt in the series dating back to a 68-65 victory by the Tigers at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum on Jan. 6, 2007.
Vanderbilt was led by the duo of Jeff Roberson and Riley LaChance. Roberson led all scorers with 30 points and 10 rebounds, while LaChance had 13 points and six assists.
Auburn will return home to face arguably the hottest team in the SEC when Texas A&M comes to Auburn Arena. After starting 0-4 in league play, the Aggies (15-8, 4-6), which were at one point a preseason Top 10 program, have returned to the NCAA tournament bubble.