Auburn, Ala.--Dominating the boards and playing good defense combined with quality play off the bench overcame less than impressive shooting as the Auburn Tigers improved to 3-0 with an 85-64 basketball victory over Eastern Kentucky University on Thursday night.
The Tigers pulled down 51 rebounds, 21 more than the Colonels, who were held to 32.8 percent shooting from the field.
Freshman Mustapha Heron hit all eight of his field goals and led all scorers with 24 points. The six-foot-five guard also led all rebounders with 10 as the Tigers got off to a 3-0 start for the first time since the 2011-12 season and only the third time in the past dozen years.
“We kind of picked it up as the game went along,” said Heron, who noted the Tigers got off to a slow start offensively.
Bruce Pearl said that Heron, a six-foot-five, 215-pound guard, “big-boyed” the visiting Colonels with physical style of play. “That is what he is supposed to do,” the coach added.
Pearl also praised graduate transfer point guard Ronnie Johnson, who came off the bench to score 13 points while adding four assists. He was on the court when the Tigers took control of the game in the second half.
“Ronnie is going to win us games,” Pearl said. “He helped win us a game tonight. He is just rock solid. His ability to get by people was really significant.”
Ronnie Johnson stepped into a key role vs. the Colonels.
Johnson, a six-foot guard, is a transfer from Houston, who also won praise for his defense vs. EKU on a night he passed the 1,000-point mark for career collegiate scoring.
“Our defense continues to carry us,” Pearl said. “When you hold a good offensive team like Eastern Kentucky to the percentages we held them to I?am really pleased with our effort and energy. We can better.”
The Tigers got 16 points and eight rebounds from Danjel Purifoy on a night 10 players scored for Auburn. One of the most efficient players was freshman forward Anfernee McLemore, who was 3-3 from the field while scoring six points and pulling in four rebounds in nine minutes. “You can just tell he has that next level athleticism,” Pearl said.
“Our most physical players stepped up and I think our depth was definitely a factor in the outcome,” said Pearl, who noted that the Tigers played an SEC physical style that caused problems for Eastern Kentucky, which Pearl said plays in the much less physical Ohio Valley Conference.
Anfernee McLemore dunks for the Tigers on Thursday night.
After jumping out to a 10-2 lead less than two minutes into the game, the Tigers struggled much of the opening half with their shooting. The Colonels took advantage of the situation and built a six-point advantage with 6:45 to play before halftime thanks to a 15-2 run.
The Tigers regained the lead at 33-32 on a steal by Bryce Brown, who followed it with a dunk off a fastbreak pass from Jared Harper.
The Tigers led 37-34 at halftime despite making just 10-29 field goals. The Tigers made 4-12 treys in the period and hit 13-21 free throws.
EKU made 11-29 field goals while hitting 6-16 threes and 6-8 free throws.
The Tigers turned the ball over nine times in the half, two fewer than the Colonels, who were out-rebounded by 23-14 by the Tigers.
Big men Horace Spencer and LaRon Smith got into early foul trouble with two apiece, but managed to get to the locker room with no additional fouls. Spencer finished the game with four points, eight rebounds and four fouls.
Eastern Kentucky coach Dale McHale was impressed with the Tigers, particularly Heron. “I knew he was going to come alive,”?McHale said. “There is a reason why he’s a Top 25 player in the country. He played great.”
Worth Noting, Part 1: The Tigers outscored EKU 48-30 in the second half thanks to 56.7 percent field goal shooting while holding the visitors to 28.9 percent in the final 20 minutes.
Worth Noting, Part 2: Auburn’s bench contributed 30 points.
Worth Noting, Part 3: Pearl said he had been happy with his team’s free throw shooting prior to Thursday night’s game in which the Tigers made 61 percent.
Stat of the Game: Herson played 23 minutes and scored 24 points.
The Tigers return to action with a 5 p.m. CST tipoff vs. Texas Tech in a game that will be played in Cancun, Mexico.