NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The game on a lot of players' minds going onto the start of the SEC tournament was not the upset of Tennessee four days earlier, or even the blowout win over Missouri two months ago.
It was a loss to Missouri on this same court inside Bridgestone Arena two years ago.
Auburn led that March 8, 2017, game by 10 points with four minutes remaining and lost by three in overtime. To this day, Bruce Pearl believes it kept his team from a possible NIT bid.
"We didn't want that feeling," forward Danjel Purifoy said. "We didn't want that to happen again."
There wasn't a sour taste in anyone's mouth in the home locker room Thursday afternoon, though. No. 5-seeded Auburn defeated No. 12-seeded Missouri 81-71 to set up a meeting with No. 4-seeded South Carolina on Friday at about 2:30 p.m.
It was the Tigers' first win at the SEC tournament since 2015, snapping a four-game losing streak that predated any player on the roster.
"It definitely felt good getting our first SEC win. Took me four years. My fourth match, my fourth year," senior Bryce Brown said. "Me and Horace (Spencer) are going to do everything we can to make sure this team doesn't go out on a sad note. We want to end our senior season on a strong note."
Like it did two years ago, Auburn led Missouri by 10 in the second half. Brown hit back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers over a 76-second span to make it a 49-39 game with 14:44 left to play.
And like it did two years ago, Missouri erased that deficit. Kevin Puryear hit a 3 and Jordan Geist scored the next eight points in a 13-3 run that tied the game at 52 points apiece with 11:22 left to play.
But this time, it was Auburn that finished strong.
"You see sort of the torch being passed," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. "Those guys beat us in here a couple years ago. But now they've got some young players, that torch is going to be passed. I want to congratulate these two seniors for getting their first SEC tournament win. It had been three years without a tournament win. That was a big win for them."
Here are three takeaways:
1. Role players
There was a stretch early in the first half when Auburn had all three of Brown, Jared Harper and Chuma Okeke on the bench. Part of it was due to foul trouble, but even still, that didn't seem ideal for a team that had gotten off to a slow start on offense.
But Auburn didn't struggle at all with its three leading scorers on the bench. Led by role players Malik Dunbar, J'Von McCormick and Spencer, it actually thrived. They're the reason that Auburn was able to take a two-point lead into halftime despite the fact that Okeke played only four minutes due to foul trouble and Harper and Brown failed to score on 0-for-10 shooting — Dunbar scored five points in 13 minutes, McCormick six in 10 minutes, and Spencer six with four blocks in 12 minutes.
2. Critical treys
t's no secret that Auburn hasn't been as strong a 3-point shooting team outside of Auburn Arena this season. It entered Thursday's game shooting 8.1 percent worse on the road (33.6 percent) compared to at home (41.7 percent).
It stayed true to form in the first half of Thursday's game, hitting just 3 of 17 attempts from beyond the arc. But those shots started to fall for Auburn in the second half, when it made 9 of 17 effort. Brown, who missed all six of his shot attempts in the first half, started the onslaught with his early outburst and made 5 of 7 attempt after the break overall.
3. Needs physicality
Now Auburn gets a rematch with South Carolina, which won the only previous meeting between the teams 80-77 on Jan. 22.
Missouri was the right type of team to play before the Gamecocks — slow-paced and physical. South Carolina will play even more physical. The difference in a close game that night in Columbia, S.C., came inside — the Gamecocks outrebounded the Tigers 40-34 and outscored them 13-9 on second-chance points and 40-32 in the paint.