Kareem Canty (above) led the Tigers to a victory on Tuesday.
Honolulu, Hawaii--Kareem Canty scored 27 points while T.J. Dunans added 20 more as the Auburn Tigers defeated New Mexico 83-78 in the opening round of the eight-team Diamond Head Classic basketball tournament on Tuesday.
In a game that featured 13 lead changes, Auburn moved ahead for good on a layup by Canty with 4:20 to play. The junior guard hit a key three-pointer from the top of the circle with 26 seconds left to put the Tigers ahead 79-75.
Auburn stretched the lead to six points on a steal by Dunans, who fed Cinmeon Bowers for a fastbreak dunk with 16 seconds remaining. However, Elijah Brown hit a three-pointer with 12 seconds left to cut the lead to 81-78.
Dunans was fouled and made one of two free throws with 11 seconds left. After a turnover by the Lobos, Dunans was fouled again with 2.7 seconds remaining and made one of two again to give the Tigers a final margin of five points.
Pearl’s Tigers will play in the second round of the tournament at approximately 4 p.m. CST on Wednesday vs. Harvard, an 85-82 overtime winner over BYU.
Auburn had to overcome a strong shooting performance by Brown, a 6-4 sophomore guard, who came into the contest averaging 19.1 points per game. He hit 10-17 field goals, including 6-9 threes, on the way to a game-high 33 points.
Another New Mexico sophomore guard, head coach’s son Cullen Neal, finished with 21 points for the Lobos, who dropped to 7-4 for the season while the Tigers improved their record to 6-3.
“Cinmeon Bowers coming off the bench gave us a real spark plug,” said Coach Bruce Pearl, who replaced the senior forward in the starting lineup with freshman Horace Spencer, who made his first college start.
Bowers finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds while Spencer added six points and five rebounds.
Pearl said a key factor in the game was Auburn outscoring the Lobos 25-7 in the points off of turnovers statistic. “That is Auburn basketball right there,” Pearl said. “We have to continue to try to play like that and build on it.”
The coach added that he was also impressed with Canty, who added seven assists with just two turnovers while coming up with three steals. “We all know now if we can just kind of be in the game, and give Canty a look late in the game, we have got a chance,” Pearl said.
Canty’s big scoring performance helped make up for Tyler Harris struggling for a second straight outing as the senior forward, who was averaging 15.4 points and 8.5 rebounds, finished with four points and three rebounds.
“Tyler has had a couple of tough days,” Pearl said. “I don’t if part of it is the scouting report. Tyler has just got to be happy with the win and get ready to go next time out.”
Pearl said it was an important victory for his team to bounce back after losing at Xavier on Saturday. “I told our team our backs are against the wall. If we are going to be a postseason team we have got to win this game. Playing a perennial power in the Mountain West out here in the West, that is a tough place for a team picked to finish in the second half of the SEC. That is a significant win for our team and our conference.”
Halftime Numbers: The Tigers led 41-36 at the break. Auburn trailed by as many as six points early in the contest and led by as many as eight points in the period at 31-23 after a 9-0 run. The Tigers hit 14-33 field goals (42.4 percent), 6-18 threes and 7-9 free throws while New Mexico made 9-30 field goals (30 percent), 6-14 threes and 12-18 free throws.
The Tigers out-rebounded New Mexico 24-17 in the first half and turned the ball over 12 times, two more than the Lobos. Dunans led Auburn in points with nine while Brown scored 20 for New Mexico.
The Lobos hit 10 out 11 shots to start the second half, building a 53-47 lead before the Tigers pulled even at 14:18 on a layup by Canty to make the score 55-55.
That set the stage for the Tigers to pull out the victory that wasn’t decided until the closing seconds. Canty's three-pointer with a hand in his face was a key shot in the win.
"Coach called the play for me to come off the ball screen quick, but I saw that they were hedging good so I just went for the flat," Canty said. "I don't think anybody can stay in front of me so I tried to take them one-on-one, and I saw the shot that I wanted, and I was leaving it short all game. I didn't leave it short then and thank God it went in."
Canty led the Tigers in scoring for the sixth time this season and has scored at least 20 points in four consecutive games.
In the last four games, Canty is averaging 25.3 points per game and is 22-of-45 from 3-point range. For the season, he is averaging 20.8 points, four made 3-point field goals and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range.
Auburn hit 28-59 field goals (47.5 percent) while the Lobos made 25-54 (46.3 percent). Auburn made 10-30 three-pointers while New Mexico also hit 10 treys while doing it on just 22 attempts. At the foul line the Tigers hit 17-24 while New Mexico made 18-27.
Auburn out-rebounded New Mexico 33-32 and turned the ball over 17 times, five fewer than the Lobos.
T.J. Dunans was a major contributor to Auburn's victory.
Dunans, who made 6-7 field goals and 7-10 frees, said he went into the contest looking to score more than he did in the loss to Xavier. “I just came out and tried to be more aggressive and help Kareem out because in the last game nobody really helped him out on offense.“
The junior guard also noted that a point of emphasis from Pearl was playing with energy. “He talked about it so much we didn’t have any choice but to come out and play with energy.,” Dunans said. “He told us to bounce around out there. That is what we did and we came up with a win.”
Pearl said he thought Auburn’s full-court pressure defense was effective. “When they bring all of those people back to get the ball in bounds, they aren’t running the break and getting to the other end of the floor,”?he pointed out. “Their break is discombobulated and they are team that does a very good job in transition.”
Worth Noting, Part 1: Pearl credited associate head coach Chuck Person for convincing him to make a defensive adjustment by going to a trapping defense to slow the Lobos, who got off to a hot start in the second half.
Worth Noting, Part 2: The matchup was the first time Auburn has played New Mexico in basketball.
Stat of the Game: Auburn’s bench outscored New Mexico’s bench 20-2.