AUBURN — Welcome back Bryce Brown and hello Southeastern Conference championship.
Whether it’s been exhaustion, injuries or a newfound defensive focus from Power Five conference opponents, the missing element to Auburn’s offense reemerged Saturday in a 79-70 win Saturday over South Carolina. The victory clinched a Southeastern Conference regular-season title — only the third in the school’s men’s basketball history. The Tigers shared the crown with Tennessee, which beat Georgia 66-61 on Saturday.
“Winning a championship at Auburn means a lot because when I got here, we were winning championships in everything and we still are. And I looked at men's basketball as not quite holding up our end,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.
The Tigers (25-6, 13-5 SEC) will be the No. 1 seed in the upcoming SEC tournament for the first time since 1999. Auburn will play the winner of the game between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds Friday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis at noon on ESPN.
After being caught in an uncharacteristically bad shooting slump over the last two weeks, Brown led all scorers with 29 points and eight shots from beyond the 3-point arc.
"Bryce Brown got back to doing what he does. And that's if he can see it, he can make it," Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. "He was the difference for us offensively."
The admitted kryptonite for Auburn coach Bruce Pearl’s program, South Carolina coach Frank Martin, doesn’t apparently work well enough in Auburn Arena. After another slow start in the first half similar to when Auburn was soundly defeated the last two times in Columbia, Auburn found offensive rhythm and turn an ugly basketball game into a more free-flowing full-court affair to get a comfortable home win.
In his pre-game media session Thursday, Pearl acknowledged that Martin’s squad and scheme “had my number” by consistently holding the SEC’s highest scoring team in check.
The Gamecocks team that Martin brought to Auburn Arena found the magic early again to create an ugly game and mix in enough offense from the inside-out duo of Chris Silva and Frank Booker in order get in the locker room at halftime with a 37-35 advantage.
Auburn missed 14 of its first 15 3-point attempts and were down by as many as 14 points early in the first half of an eerily similar start to its upset loss in Columbia just a few weeks ago. However, Brown sparks a rally late in the first half with four 3-point shots in a span of 3:38.
Brown, who is one of three legitimate candidates on the Auburn roster for SEC Player of the Year consideration, hadn’t found his form since injuring his shoulder and foot nearly a month ago. The junior guard basically clinched the victory with his seventh 3-pointer to give Auburn its biggest lead at the time (64-55) with 5:22 left while South Carolina (16-15, 7-11) was shooting just 29 percent.
"I feel like I was pushing, forcing at times and just getting outside of what I can do at times," Brown said. "Before this game, I kind of lost a little confidence in my shot. I put a lot of work in it and coming into this game, I knew (the slump) wouldn't last for long."
Auburn got 13 points and six assists from sophomore point guard Jared Harper after he had nine turnovers in the loss at South Carolina earlier this season.
Auburn was able to put the clamps on South Carolina’s high-low action to Silva and the forward who finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds fouled out with 3:38 left. Booker had 18 points for the Gamecocks but had just one made field goal in the second half.