T.J. Dunans (above) celebrates his game-winning shot with the help of his teammates.
Auburn, Ala.--Overcoming a below average shooting game and struggles on the boards, the Auburn Tigers used a three-point, buzz-beater from the corner by senior T.J. Dunans to defeat Mercer 76-74 on Saturday in a basketball game at Auburn Arena.
Commenting on the last play as he had just enough to catch pass, turn towards the basket and launch a shot from the corner in front of the Auburn bench, Dunans said, “We designed the play for Danjel (Purifoy), but we couldn’t get him the ball. It ended up in my hands, I shot and it felt good...The way I shot it I knew it was going in.”
Dunans was hoisted on to the shoulders of his teammates as he busted out of his early season struggle with 13 points, five rebounds and three assists as the Tigers improved to 8-2.
“I know I can play,” said Dunans. “I have been in a slump. (This game) ?pushed me over the edge.”
The dramatic ending overshadowed the impressive debut of freshman center Austin Wiley, but not by much. The 6-11, 255 early high school graduate played 15 minutes and contributed nine points, three rebounds and two blocks after having what Coach Bruce Pearl said was just six hours of practice with the team before playing on Sunday.
“He is going to be really good,” Dunans said of Wiley. “I?know you all see it. I think he played really well.”
With the game tied at 69-69, Wiley’s basket on a pass from another freshman, Mustapha Heron, put the Tigers ahead in a nip-and-tuck contest with 45 seconds left.
Auburn led 72-69 as Heron made one of two free throws with 22 seconds left. Then with nine seconds left he again made 1-2 free throws to put the Tigers up 73-71. That set the stage for a wild ending.
A goal-tending call against Dunans followed by a free throw by Ria’n Holland but the Bears up 74-73 with under four seconds left. The Tigers in-bounded the ball and got it to near midcourt where Heron struggled to get control of the pass, but was able to call timeout with 1.1 seconds left. It was his pass that set up the winning shot by Dunans.
“Neither deserved to lose, but they (Mercer) really deserved to win,” Pearl said. “Those kids made big shots. Their stuff is really hard to guard.”
Mustapha Heron takes a shot vs. Mercer.
The Bears fell to 5-6 with the loss, much to the delight of a crowd of 7,991 that watched Heron lead the Tigers in scoring with 21 points as he hit 7-12 field goals, 2-4 threes and 5-9 free throws.
Pearl said that going into the game he was concerned that Wiley’s short amount of preparation time since joining the team was going to be a problem, especially against a team that runs a challenging system to defend and attack. “That wasn’t the case,” ?Pearl said. “His presence helped us.”
The coach noted that freshman center wasn’t perfect and after the game jokingly fussed at him for having just three rebounds, but added, “For him to have picked up on the things he needed to do in such a short period of time is remarkable.”
Wiley said, "At first I was nervous, but when the game started flowing I started picking it up. I got comfortable when the game got going." If that is the case he scored his first college points before he got comfortable, making 1-2 free throws three seconds after he checked into the contest.
The Tigers got 11 points from T.J. Lang while Danjel Purifoy, the team’s leading scorer, finished with seven points and six rebounds, but made just 1-8 field goals.
As a team Auburn shot just 40 percent, hitting 20-50 field goals. They were solid from three-point range after a slow start, making 9-24. At the foul line Auburn made 27-35 free throws.
The Bears took nine more shots than Auburn, hitting 26-59 (44.1 percent) thanks to a 41-26 rebounding margin. Auburn was able to overcome that with the help of 15 forced turnovers while committing just seven.
The first half was played at Mercer’s preferred pace, a very slow tempo, and Bears led 32-30 at intermission thanks to cold shooting from the home team. The Tigers hit just 9-27 field goals while the Bears made 12-27 (44.4 percent).
Lang, who hit all three of shots, which were treys, led the Tigers in scoring at the break with nine points. The rest of the team was 2-12 on threes. Mercer made 3-12 threes in the half.
Mercer led for more than 13 minutes in the first half, building the margin to as many seven points with 3:51 left in the period. Part of the reason was Purifoy was scoreless at the break, missing all six of his field goals.
In the second half the Tigers shot 47.8 percent from the field and aggressively attacked the basket. That led to 27 foul shots in the period and they made 20. For the game Auburn hit 77.1 percent of its free throws while Mercer was 12-17.
"I thought that was a great college basketball game," Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said. "We didn't get it done today, but I think we have made a strike in the right direction for what we want to accomplish."
Worth Noting, Part 1: The Tigers played for a second straight game without suspended sophomores Bryce Brown and Horace Spencer.
Worth Noting, Part 2: Auburn’s bench outscored Mercer 26-12.
Worth Noting, Part 3: Wiley got a big cheer from the crowd when he took the court for the first time in the first half. "It mean a lot," he said of the reception. "I got of emotional out there, but I can't think about that as the game is going. I just had to keep my game-face, but it meant a lot."
Stat of the Game: Auburn out-scored the Bears 22-12 in points off of turnovers.
Up Next: The Tigers hit the road for a Wednesday evening game vs. the Oklahoma Sooners at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Two days later the Tigers will be in Hartford to play the UConn Huskies at the XL Center.