By Charles Goldberg
Auburn's trip to Connecticut was full of holiday cheer.
Jared Harper scored 22 and the Tigers beat UConn 70-67 in overtime in Hartford on Friday, two days after knocking off Oklahoma in Connecticut, too.
The holiday trip had Auburn coach Bruce Pearl in a festive mood.
"I'm going to the airport. I'm going to take a red Magic Marker. I painting the nose of our plane because Rudolph is flying us home. We don't need the jet. We could fly home on Santa's sleigh right now," Pearl said on Auburn's post-game radio show.
Harper hit the go-ahead basket with 27 seconds remaining after Danjel Purifoy hit a 3, his only field goal of the game, to tie it.
"Jared Harper is special, and he's put it back to back. He wanted that ball," Pearl said. And while Purifoy finished with only five points, he had a game-best 15 rebounds nearly playing the whole way at 44 minutes.
Auburn, winning in both Uncasville and Hartford days apart, improved to 10-2, the best start since the 2002-03 season.
"It's a great moment. We came here on December 21st and 23rd to try to get nationally relevant," Pearl said. "We beat a Final Four team from a year ago, and a four-time national champion this afternoon. And we didn't play well in either. That's encouraging. I have so much to work with and so much work to do to get us to play better. But, goodness gracious."
Pearl acknowledged neither Oklahoma nor UConn is playing to its past standards. But the Tigers still won the games over nationally-recognized teams. "This week we helped the league. That matters to me," Pearl said.
The Tigers are heading to an early start to Southeastern Conference play against Georgia at home on Dec. 29. Their short Christmas break will include this week of winning.
It was also a successful trip for Mustapha Heron, a high school star in his home-state Connecticut, who scored 15 points and had eight rebounds for Auburn after recording a double-double against Oklahoma.
It wasn't easy for Auburn. The Tigers shot poorly in the first half. But Auburn hung around, traded the lead with UConn multiple times in the second half and led 66-60 with 1:20 remaining. The Huskies scored the last six points of regulation to force overtime. The Tigers scored the final six points in overtime to win it.
"We knew adversity was going to come to us in this game," Harper said. "We're on the road against a good team, so it's going to be adversity. But we know we can stick together as a family and be one unit."
Auburn, playing its fourth game in nine days, had trouble getting going through the first half and into the second. The Tigers hit just 2 of its first 14 shots, and though Auburn picked it up, they ended the first half shooting only 29 percent. But UConn missed an opportunity to pull away and led only 31-30 at halftime. The game was close the rest of the way as Auburn closed out its pre-conference schedule in a most successful way.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine