By Charles Goldberg
Happy birthday basketball and T.J. Dunans.
You both got to celebrate Wednesday night in the Hall of Fame's Birthday of Basketball Game in Uncasville, Conn. Dunans celebrated his 24th birthday with a career-high 21 points and Mustapha Heron was solid playing in front of his home-state fans as Auburn beat Oklahoma 74-70.
Dunans, who was last seen hitting the game-winning buzzer-beating shot to top Mercer on Sunday, scored a career-high 21 points Wednesday as basketball celebrated its 125th birthday in the Mohegan Sun Arena. Heron, from Waterbury, Conn., scored 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in front of fans who made the trip to see their hometown star play.
Jared Harper had a big second half and scored 21.
Seventeen-year-old Austin Wiley made his first college start in his second college game as Auburn started four freshmen for the first time since the 2005-06 season.
"This was a big stage, and tonight, the bright lights didn't bother the freshmen," said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl.
"It's a great win for our program."
Auburn improved to 9-2, the best start since the 2007-08 season. Oklahoma, a Final Four team last season, fell to 6-5.
The Sooners started poorly, but suddenly shot themselves with 3 points in the second half. Pearl said Dunans, the old man as senior, "was a very calming influence" as Auburn beat back Oklahoma's run.
"He was talking to all his teammates."
It was a game of defense and a lot of missed shots.
"It was a battlefield out there," Dunans said. "We were getting hit every play. I've got scratches everywhere."
Heron's double-double came in front of family and friends. And, Pearl said, "that's the best defensive effort he's given us."
Wiley had six points, three rebounds, a block and a steal in his second game. He's practiced less than a week with his Tigers.
"It's amazing he's out there for 18 minutes," Pearl said.
Auburn, which is sometimes on the wrong side of the rebounding stat sheet, outrebounded Oklahoma 45-41.
The first half was short on offense. The teams only hit three of their first 21 shots when Oklahoma led 5-4. Auburn picked it up. The Sooners tried. Oklahoma had hit just four of their first 23 shots when Auburn led 19-10. Auburn shot 39 percent in the first half. The Sooners, a Final Four team a year ago, shot 24 percent. Auburn led 34-22 at the break.
"I thought our defense was really good Pearl said of the first half.
Oklahoma closed to three during a stretch in the second half when Auburn didn't hit a field goal for more than six minutes. But Harper got hot and Auburn went ahead 58-46 with 6:51 left.
Bryce Brown and Horace Spencer, who had missed the previous two games after being suspended, practiced this week but did not play.
Auburn plays Connecticut in Hartford at 1:30 p.m. Friday on ESPN2.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine