AUBURN — The Bruce Pearl magic performance showed something new in an unexpected blowout win over rival Alabama.
The Tigers’ head coach took a roster of seven scholarship players, including only two taller than 6-foot-7, and no seniors to a 90-71 victory Wednesday over an Alabama squad likely headed for the NCAA tournament.
"It's just special, it's special beyond compare," Pearl said. "This team is trying to make history and we got a long way to go but I can't deny what we're seeing is rare. Enjoy this because it doesn't happen very often."
League-leading Auburn (24-4, 12-3 SEC) was without the services of sophomore guard Mustapha Heron, the team’s No. 2 scorer. He didn’t play because of what team officials called flu-like symptoms. Heron’s absence meant Auburn was down to seven scholarship players. Malik Dunbar, who was making his third career start, finished with 14 points and seven rebounds.
“Mustapha did everything he could to play,” Pearl said. “He even came to film today thinking he could give it a go. ... He's been sick the last three days.”
Auburn was already without forward Anfernee McLemore as the 6-foot-7 sophomore is out for the remainder of the season with serious injuries to his left leg, which occurred this past weekend at South Carolina.
The Tigers began the game with an 8-0 run, and when Alabama later tied it 30-30, Auburn reeled off another eight-point run. The Tigers never trailed.
“We did what we had to do,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “We had to get off to a good start. We had to hit them in the mouth early.”
Auburn ran off a 36-15 second half blitz that gave the Tigers a 86-62 lead with 3:56 to play.
The Tigers got 24 combined points from its freshmen, Chuma Okeke (16) and Davion Mitchell (eight).
Jared Harper, who hit two 3-pointers with his feet on the “AU” logo near midcourt, finished with 21 points to rebound from a frustrating performance in a loss at South Carolina.
The point guard battle of Harper and Alabama’s Collin Sexton might have been worth the price of admission Wednesday as the Tide’s freshman sensation, who is projected to go in the first round of this year’s NBA draft, finished 25 points.
Okeke, who will be forced to play more minutes due to McLemore’s injury, had arguably his career-best performance Wednesday night. The freshman, who was a Top 40 recruit in every service rankings, already had a double-double before the under-8 minute timeout was assessed. He finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
“He's ready to step up now,” Pearl said.
Auburn hit 12 3-point shots but was able to stop John Petty, the long-range assassin during the Tide’s victory in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 17. In the 76-71 loss at Coleman Coliseum, Petty hit eight 3-point shots in a career-high 27-point effort. In front of a near rabid Auburn Arena fan base, Petty was 1 for 9 from 3-point range and only scored three points.
Auburn will try to clinch the Southeastern Conference regular-season title this Saturday at Florida.