AUBURN — The sellout crowd of 9,121 fans that was packed into Auburn Arena late on a Wednesday night saw Danjel Purifoy get airborne, reach his right hand over the top of Vanderbilt forward Ejike Obinna and deflect Saben Lee’s inbounds pass into the backcourt.
The senior Auburn forward saw only one thing.
“A ‘W,’” he said after the unbeaten Tigers’ 83-79 victory over the Commodores in their SEC home opener. “Once I got it, I knew the game was over.”
It was. Auburn saw what had been a 14-point second-half lead whittled down to zero with a minute left to play in the second half. Three free throws put the home team back on top, but the visitors had the ball, down only one score, with 22.8 seconds remaining.
But, thanks to Purifoy's key steal, they didn’t get a shot off. And the next time they possessed the ball, they trailed by four — Purifoy found J’Von McCormick, Vanderbilt fouled him, and Auburn’s point guard sunk the only free throw he needed to ice the game.
On a night where Auburn’s senior class made history by winning its 88th game — already the most over a four-year stretch the program has had — it was one of those seniors who made arguably the most important play of the game.
That it was on defense shows how far Purifoy has come during his up-and-down career, which has been on the rise again through the Tigers’ 14-0 start.
“I'm always on Danjel to make plays defensively and not hope they miss,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “He made some really good plays tonight. He really did. He switched off on some guards and kept them in front. Obviously, he makes the play late. Good stuff.”
Purifoy’s game has been mostly offense since he first arrived at Auburn as a four-star recruit out of Centreville. He ranked second behind Mustapha Heron scoring 11.5 points a game as a redshirt freshman during the 2016-17 season, which remains the best of his career after he was ineligible in 2017-18 and an end-of-the-rotation player last year. He attempted more 3-pointers than anyone on the roster that season.
But Purifoy struggled to hold his own on defense. Pearl played him out of position at power forward where, at 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, he was a bit undersized to match up with the SEC’s big men inside. He probably still is.
That couldn’t be an excuse in his senior season, though. After one year stuck on the sideline and another playing off the end of the bench, Auburn asked Purifoy to step back into a starting power forward role vacated by Chuma Okeke.
And while Okeke was a versatile offensive weapon (12 points, 1.9 assists a game) and talented rebounder (team-leading 6.8 a game), one of his best traits was his defensive ability. That’s part of why the Orlando Magic selected him with the No. 16 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft despite the fact that he’s expected to miss the entire season while he recovers from a torn ACL.
That’s what Purifoy needed to be better at this season.
“That’s actually my main focus, not letting people drive around me and move on feet when I’m switching on guards,” he said after Wednesday’s game. “That’s just my main focus right now.”
It’s hard to quantify defense in a box score, but Purifoy is averaging a career-best 5.1 rebounds per game and has blocked as many shots through 14 games this season (six) as he did through his first 57 games for the Tigers. Pearl has been able to see a difference.
“We were off from school for four weeks (during winter break), but we weren’t off. I think he trained hard, he stayed in the gym, he was able to take advantage of not having to put 20 hours in the classroom to then put it more into the other areas of playing,” the head coach said. “It paid off for him.”
For a while, it seemed like that focus on defense might have been serving as a detriment on offense. On a team where the starters average 71.9 percent of the scoring, Purifoy ranks last among them averaging 9.8 points a game despite ranking fourth playing 27.3 minutes. After scoring in double-figures in five of the team’s first seven games, he scored in single digits in four straight during December.
In wins over Furman, Saint Louis, North Carolina State and Lehigh, Purifoy averaged just 5 points a game and shot 25 percent from the field.
But he has started to heat up again over Auburn’s last three games, scoring 17 against Lipscomb, 11 against Mississippi State and 12 against Vanderbilt while shooting 50 percent from the floor and making 6 of 15 attempts from beyond the arc. He poured in 34 of those 40 points after halftime.
In Saturday’s win at Mississippi State, Purifoy went on a personal 8-0 run with two 3s and a layup that stretched what had shrunk to a two-point lead back to double digits. On Wednesday, he scored the Tigers’ first six points after halftime with two layups and a pair of free throws.
Purifoy made 5 of 9 shots, added three rebounds and an assist and, of course, came up with the crucial steal that saved the game for the Tigers.
“I didn’t really do much in the first half,” he said. “Coming out in the second half, I knew I had to be more aggressive for us to get this win.”