Auburn's Mustapha Heron fires one up on the way to 19 points against Georgia
By Charles Goldberg
Auburn's young basketball team streaked to a nice lead before it learned a tough lesson about playing in the Southeastern Conference on Thursday night.
Experienced Georgia beat an Auburn basketball team that started four freshmen 96-84 as the Bulldogs overcame double-digit deficits in the SEC opener in Auburn Arena.
Auburn's four freshmen starters led the Tigers in scoring. But Georgia relied on its experience to pull away in the closing minutes.
"We showed our youth," said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. "We panicked in the second half, and young teams will do that.
"Clearly, we are disappointed."
Auburn enjoyed a 13-point lead in the first half and a 12-point lead in the second before the Bulldogs took over in the earliest start to an SEC season since 1991.
"I think they just kind of went on a little run, and I don't think we responded well enough to it," said Auburn guard Mustapha Heron. "But that's just something the more we get together the more our experience develops we'll be just fine, I think."
Auburn, trying to match its win total from last year, fell to 10-3. Georgia improved to 9-4.
Auburn's freshmen still put up plenty of points: Heron scored 19, Danjel Purifoy had 13 and Austin Wiley scored 11 and Jared Harper had 10. But Georgia's two preseason All-SEC selections — J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten — combined for 58 points.
"We couldn't get stops," Pearl said on the Auburn radio post-game show. "Nobody could guard Maten. Not a soul. Nobody could guard Frazier. We didn't give enough help in our defense to force those other guys to beat us.
"We just couldn't stop them, so it didn't matter what we were doing on the offensive end. We didn't execute as well. We tried to get it back quickly when they made their run. Obviously, that inexperienced showed."
Heron said Auburn will learn from the game.
"I think that, as a young team, I think we need something like this to move forward and get better," he said. "I think going down the stretch when we have leads we need to take better shots. I think my shot selection down the stretch was a little poor. It could definitely be better, and I think, just as a team, just taking care of the ball and all that stuff."
Auburn led by 12 early in the second half. Georgia cut it to six with 12 minutes left, then cut it to four 30 seconds later. Georgia tied it 70-70 with 10 minutes left. Three straight Wiley points put Auburn back up 73-70. The Tigers made it 76-74, then turned cold.
Georgia went on a 12-0 run for an 86-76 lead with 3:40 remaining.
Auburn and its freshmen raced to its 13-point lead in the first half behind some red-hot 3-point shooting. The Tigers hit seven of their first 10 3-point tries, cooled off, saw Georgia cut the lead to three, but heated up again to lead 51-43 in a high-scoring first half.
Auburn lit up the scoreboard with balanced scoring in the first half. Ten Tigers scored, with Wiley, Heron and TJ Lang each scoring eight; and Purifoy and Horace Spencer each scoring six.
But Georgia outscored Auburn 53-33 in the second half.
The Tigers will try to bounce back at Vanderbilt on Jan. 4.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine