Tigers Hang Tough And Break Two Streaks

Auburn advanced to the second round of the SEC Basketball Tournament with a 74-68 victory over Mississippi State.

K.C. Ross-Miller (above) matched his Auburn scoring high with 21 points.

Nashville, Tenn.--Coach Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers erased two negative streaks on Wednesday night with a hard-fought 74-68 victory over Mississippi State sparked by a big night from the bench.

The victory ended a six-game losing streak for the Tigers and it was also their first win in the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament since 2009. The Tigers will play No. 5 seed Texas A&M in the second afternoon session on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena.

“It is just very, very important,” Pearl said of the victory. “It matters to our fans, it matters to our former players, and it matters to us and it matters to those kids in the locker room--it really does."

Pearl said the win was particularly gratifying to see for a senior like K.T. Harrell to be able to say he contributed to helping the program take a step forward.

“I have been saying they have not quit,” Pearl said. “Most teams that have lost 19 games, they would be ready to go home and be done with it--put me out my misery. These kids haven’t.”

A big part in making it happen was the Auburn bench out-scoring the Bulldogs 24-11 led by 16 points from Alex Thompson, who was 6-7 from the field while making each of his three three-pointers.

Also playing a major role was walk-on forward Devin Waddell, who contributed the defensive spark and hustle the Tigers needed to hold on for the victory. Waddell finished with four points, four rebounds, one assist and one steal in 16 minutes, but the stats don’t show how valuable he was.

K.C. Ross-Miller had one of his best performances of the season, leading the Tigers with 21 points while hitting key free throws down the stretch to preserve the lead. The senior guard led Auburn in rebounds with seven and steals with three.

“Coach was talking to me about rebounding and Tahj (injured guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen) was on me about rebounding. I really wanted to get 10.”

Ross-Miller said he was impressed with the play of Thompson, the former walk-on who Pearl said had by far his best game of the season. Mississippi State coach Rick Ray agreed and said, “I thought Alex Thompson hurt us.”

Thompson said, “I hit the first shot and I told the coaches I felt like I needed to be aggressive because before the game my shot was feeling really good. I decided to drive the ball for once and that worked out really well, too.”

Alex Thompson played 23 minutes in a reserve role.

Auburn was dominated by the Bulldogs on the boards in the regular season matchup, a loss for the Tigers at Auburn Arena in January. That was not the case on Wednesday night at Bridgestone Arena as Auburn pulled in 34 rebounds, seven more than the Bulldogs.

"They smashed us on the boards in the regular season game so the rebounding was a big deal," Thompson said, noting the Bulldogs had only two offensive rebounds in the first half.

The rebounding edge helped Auburn win on a night when the Bulldogs made 50 percent of their 52 field goals and 15-19 free throws.

Auburn hit 22-48 shots (45.8 percent) and in the second half shot 56.5 percent from the field.

Three-pointers contributed to the victory in a major way. Auburn hit 8-15 while the Bulldogs were 1-12.

Mississippi State’s season ended at 13-19 overall as Craig Sword scored a team-high 21 points and I.J. Ready added 18.

Auburn, which improved to 13-19, led by as many as three points in the first half while Mississippi State’s largest lead was seven. The Bulldogs were ahead for 13 minutes and 30 seconds in the period.

The Bulldogs did much of their damage inside in the opening half, outscoring Auburn 14-6 in the points-in-the-paint statistic.

Halftime Numbers: The Tigers trailed 36-34 with the Bulldogs making 14-29 field goals for 48.3 percent while the Tigers made 9-25 for 36 percent. Auburn hit 5-9 threes and 11-19 free throws. The Bulldogs hit 1-8 threes and 7-7 free throws.

Auburn held a 19-15 edge in rebounds and a 9-2 advantage in second-chance points at intermission. Auburn committed nine first half turnovers, two more than Mississipi State.

Pearl played nine guys in the opening period. Harrell led the Tigers in scoring with nine points while Ross-Miller was next with eight followed by Thompson with six, Cinmeon Bowers with five, Antoine Mason with four and Devin Waddell with two. Bowers and Ross-Miller had five rebounds apiece.

I.J. Ready led the Bulldogs at the break with 12 points while Sword scored 10.

Auburn started well in the second half, building the advantage to 44-40 at the 15:26 mark on a basket by Harrell.

The Tigers built the lead into 11 points at the 11:37 mark when Ross-Miller stole a pass, drove the length of the court and was fouled. The senior guard made both free throws.

However, things went bad quickly for the Tigers, who lost their lead thanks to sloppy play and good shooting by the Bulldogs, who pulled ahead 61-59 at the 7:08 mark on a jumper from the win by Ready.

Auburn regained its composure and took the lead for good with 3:47 to play on a layup by Harrell following a three-point basket by Thompson.

Waddell drew a charge on Sword with 1:01 left and Auburn stretched the lead to 71-66 on a layup by Ross-Miller with 38 seconds. The senior point guard then hit three of four foul shots to ice the victory.

Worth Noting, Part 1: Auburn outscored the Bulldogs 16-8 in second chance points.

Worth Noting, Part 2: Thompson’s 16 points doubled his previous high points total of eight.

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