By Tom Green | AL.com
Auburn finally put one in the win column.
After opening SEC play on a four-game losing streak, Auburn finally picked up its first win in league play on Wednesday night in Athens, Ga.—and it wasn’t particularly close. Auburn got another monster performance from freshman Sharife Cooper—playing in just his second game—and six players scored in double figures as the Tigers led wire to wire in a 95-77 rout of Georgia at Stegeman Coliseum.
Cooper had a career-high 28 points and 12 assists, while Devan Cambridge added 14 points and five blocks. JT Thor, Allen Flanigan and Jaylin Williams had 11 points apiece, and Jamal Johnson chipped in with 10 on a night that Auburn (7-6, 1-4 SEC) was seemingly clicking on all cylinders, leading by as many as 23 points in the second half and holding a double-digit lead for the final 17 minutes of action. “Obviously, it’s got a chance to be a confidence-builder, but I’m all looking at is Kentucky, at Arkansas, at South Carolina, Missouri at home,” Bruce Pearl said. “But this team is going to keep getting better. There will be more joy in my building tonight. I won’t let that last very long, but I want them to be happy tonight. You know, we’ve got a pissed off Kentucky team coming in here on Saturday. So, we’ve got to get ready.”
Sharife Cooper’s impact is considerable
It’s amazing how one player can drastically change the complexion of a team. For Auburn, that one player is Cooper, the five-star freshman who missed the first 11 games of the season while waiting for the NCAA to rule on his initial eligibility.
Since being cleared before last weekend’s game against Alabama, Cooper has done nothing but wow. Bruce Pearl has said it multiple times about Cooper—and he said it again Tuesday leading up to the Georgia game—but the 6-foot-1 point guard is well worth the price of admission. “Just go enjoy watching him play,” Pearl said Tuesday.
There was plenty for Auburn to enjoy about Cooper’s performance on Wednesday. After putting up 26 points, nine assists, four rebounds and three steals—while earning SEC Freshman of the Week honors—in his debut against Alabama, Cooper’s follow-up was even more impressive, and his impact on the floor was considerable once again. Cooper had his first career double-double and set a new career-high, finishing with 28 points, 12 assists, five rebounds and a pair of steals. He was a game-high plus-18 in 34 minutes while scoring or assisting on 59 of Auburn’s 95 points. His dozen assists included an array of no-look passes, wraparounds under the basket and lobs to teammates.
“Sharife Cooper was the best player on the court, and offensively, what he’s able to do is — we have six guys in double figures because he just shares it,” Pearl said. “Whether you’re at the rim or whether you’re on the perimeter, he’s hard to guard and it makes what we do harder to guard. It was good to get off the schneid a little bit.” In the first half, Cooper accounted for 31 of Auburn’s 45 points as the Tigers took a 45-34 lead into the break. During the opening period, Cooper had eight points, eight assists and four rebounds. He closed the half with a furious flurry that spanned a little more than two minutes as he scored or assisted on 14 straight points for Auburn, which pushed its lead to 16 late in the half. While he mostly distributed in the first half, Cooper found the basket more after the break, scoring 20 second-half points. Still, there’s room for Cooper to improve as he continues to find his game rhythm after being withheld from the court for so long. He committed five turnovers against Georgia, and through his first two career games he is shooting just 1-of-11 from beyond the arc, including 0-for-4 against Georgia, and just 17of-41 from the floor overall. If he isn’t considered a problem for opponents quite yet, he will be once he finds his shooting stroke. “He needs to do a better job of finishing, he didn’t use his left hand quite as much as I’d like him to and he’s capable of,” Pearl said. “But if you’re open, he’s going to find you. He’s going to give you easy ones. Like, the dimes he drops are open shots. We’ll continue to run the offense through him. I thought he was better defensively tonight. I thought he was more physical, I thought he checked out of his position, I thought he guarded better tonight, and that’s what we need to do as we continue to move forward.” Auburn finally got off to a strong start Auburn trailed by double digits in the first half of each of its first four SEC games. That changed Wednesday in Athens. Auburn never trailed in the first 20 minutes and led by as many as 16 in the first half. There was a point when an 11-point lead was cut to two with 7:14 to go until halftime, thanks to a 13-4 run by Georgia, but Auburn never saw its lead completely evaporate. The Tigers responded to that Bulldogs run by pushing their lead back to double digits over the ensuing five minutes — mostly thanks to an impressive surge from Cooper, who helped account for 14 points over a 2:08 span late in the first half. During that burst, Cooper had a fastbreak layup, followed by back-to-back assists — the first on an Allen Flanigan transition 3-pointer, the second on a layup by Stretch Akingbola — and then a pair of free throws. He then had another assist on a fastbreak that resulted in three-point play for Devan Cambridge, followed by a steal and fastbreak layup of his own. By the time Cooper’s late-half flurry ended, Auburn had its largest lead of the first half at 45-29 with 1:12 to go until halftime. “Oh yeah, (Cooper makes) a major difference,” Cambridge said. “Like, that’s what we’ve been waiting for is a true point guard. He’s very unselfish. He’s going to find me. Like, he makes my game a lot easier. He’s makes me look 10 times better, and he’s going to find everybody. He’s very unselfish. He’s going to get the job done and do what he needs to do.” Auburn had a block party in Athens Pearl spoke in the preseason about wanting Auburn to be “disruptive rather than defensive” this season thanks to its added length and athleticism up and down the roster. Against Georgia, that length and athleticism was in full effect—and it led to quite a disruptive night for Auburn on the defensive end. The Tigers blocked 14 shots, marking their first SEC game with double-digit blocks in a little more than four years and the most by a Division I team this season. Cambridge and Williams accounted for five blocks apiece, while Akingbola had two. “Devan Cambridge was just incredible protecting the rim,” Pearl said. “And so was Jaylin Williams and Stretch. But, again, it was about retreating. It was about trying to meet them at the rim and nowhere else on the floor because they put so much pressure on you off the bounce. So, I thought we used our length and did a good job of helping each other. And that was huge. We’ve got great length. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t use it.” The Tigers also had 11 steals and forced 18 turnovers against the Bulldogs, producing 23 points for Auburn off those turnovers. Auburn only had two points off seven first-half Georgia turnovers, but the Tigers took advantage of those Bulldogs errors in the second half, scoring 21 points off 11 Georgia turnovers. “I mean, we knew we’ve been on a dry spell,” Cambridge said. “It started off with defense -- being out front in transition. Bruce Pearl was always talking about -- like, we need to come out and play defense this game. So, you know, we locked in on that today, and it showed. We played a lot better today on the defense end -- well, on both sides, but a lot on defense.”