(2017-18 RECORD: 24-6, 12-5 SEC) vs. (2017-18 RECORD: 16-14, 7-10 SEC)
|Sat, March 3||2:30 p.m.|
By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. – The task is simple. Win Saturday and you’re SEC champs.
Auburn (24-6, 12-5) has lost two straight and three of its last four, but the Tigers return home to Auburn Arena still tied for first place in the conference. If they beat South Carolina, they clinch a share of the SEC regular-season title for the first time since 1999, and they clinch the No. 1 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament.
“Our guys are excited about having the opportunity to win a championship for the first time in a long time,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “It’s something you dream about, and we’ve got a chance for it to become a reality on Saturday. So we are really excited about it.”
The bad news is that South Carolina has had Auburn’s number in recent years. The Gamecocks have won four of the last five meetings between the two teams, including an 84-75 victory in Columbia just two weeks ago.
In the game two weeks ago, South Carolina jumped out to a 42-16 lead in the first half. Auburn battled back even after losing Anfernee McLemore to injury and cut the lead to five at one point in the second half, but slow starts have plagued this team during their recent slide. They want to make sure they start fast in Saturday’s home finale.
“It’s very important to get a great start in,” Auburn forward Desean Murray said. “We’ll be at home, so hopefully the crowd and the intensity of the game are going to give us a good start. We’re going to come into that game ready to play. We’re going to come to practice ready to play. We’re probably going to go live a little bit because we need to get back to that – just being ready to play in the first half. So it’s going to be big to come out and play hard.”
Saturday’s game is scheduled to tip off at 2:30 p.m. CT from Auburn Arena. Rod Bramblett and Sonny Smith will have the radio call on 93.9 Tiger FM, online at AuburnTigers.com and on the TuneIn app. The game will also be televised on SEC Network with Kevin Fitzgerald, Sean Harrington and Kris Budden on the call.
Player to watch: Bryce Brown
One of the most improved players in the country and a Naismith Trophy finalist, Bryce Brown has been a key factor for Auburn this season. He has scored at least 10 points in 14 of 16 games in conference play, including 7 of 8 inside Auburn Arena. The Stone Mountain, Ga. native is averaging 17.7 points per game at home while shooting 46 percent from the field.
Inside the series: South Carolina
This is the 42nd meeting between Auburn and South Carolina with the Tigers holding a 23-18 series lead. Auburn is 20-11 since South Carolina joined the SEC prior to the 1991-92 season and is 10-8 in games played at home, including 3-1 in Auburn Arena.
Bruce Pearl is 13-5 against South Carolina, but just 1-3 since he’s been at Auburn. He was 12-2 against the Gamecocks in his six seasons at Tennessee.
Auburn’s 14 home wins this season are tied with the 2011-12 Tigers for the most wins in the eight-year history of Auburn Arena. In 15 games this season, Auburn is beating teams by an average of 17.3 points per game this season at home.
“I think we’ll have a great crowd Saturday,” Pearl said. “The crowds have been wonderful all year long. But I’ll just say we’ve got 10 wins away from Auburn Arena, so we’ve been a team that’s been able to travel and win. Yet, I think we enjoy the best home-court advantage in college basketball at Auburn Arena.”
Mustapha No. 5
Sophomore Mustapha Heron is coming off back-to-back 20-point performances at Florida and at Arkansas. He’s now scored 20 or more points 13 times in his young career, including seven times this season, and he’s averaging 20.7 points per game over his last seven. During that stretch, he’s shooting 39 of 87 (45 percent) from the field and 35 of 41 (85.4 percent) from the charity stripe.
Prior to Saturday’s game, Auburn will honor senior guard Patrick Keim and the senior managers on the roster. Keim, a former walk-on, earned a scholarship earlier this season.
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @greg_ostendorf