Harper, Okeke lead Auburn to road win against rival Alabama

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

TUSCALOOSA – In a game Alabama led by as many as 13 points on several occasions, including a 36-23 lead early in the second half, rival Auburn played the spoiler to come out victorious with a 66-60 win thanks to strong second-half play from Chuma Okeke and Jared Harper.

Both players ended up with 11 second-half points on their way to 17 and 16 points, respectively, but both played a different part with Okeke sparking the comeback early in the second half and Harper closing it out with six points in the final 3:32, including two crucial layups.

“Chuma Okeke is just a nightmare to matchup with,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said after the win. “He can score inside out and defend inside out so we tried to go at that matchup as much as we possibly could.

“Then Jared Harper late, as you’d expect from an experienced point guard, we were going to put the ball in his hands and get out of his way to let him get downhill and win or lose the game there.”

Following a Tevin Mack 3-pointer with 1:40 to play to tie the game at 60-60 and send the Coleman Coliseum crowd into a frenzy, Harper was able to blow by Alabama freshman Kira Lewis Jr. to lay the ball in with ease and put the Tigers back in front at 62-60 with 1:10 remaining.

After Lewis tried to do the same on the other end of the floor, he slipped and fell turning the ball over to Auburn, and the ball again found its way into the hands of Harper.

Holding the ball near the half-court line, Harper eventually played off a screen and drove right by Lewis again for another easy layup off the glass, but this time, it was the knockout punch putting the Tigers on top 64-60 with 19 seconds remaining, before Alabama turned it over to give Auburn two more points for the 66-60 victory.

“Harper is a veteran point guard and he knows what he’s doing,” Alabama head coach Avery Johnson said of the final layups. “We did a nice job of getting him off the 3-point line, but once we got him inside the 3-point line, I thought we lost some of our positioning on the ball and opened up and allowed him to just drive to the basket.”

Before Harper and Okeke got going, Alabama was able to continue its strong play from the first half by extending its nine-point halftime lead to a 13-point advantage early in the second half thanks to a 36-23 advantage following two John Petty free throws.

That, however, was followed by back-to-back layups from Okeke and then a put-back dunk from Malik Dunbar to all of a sudden make it a 36-29 game.

Alabama was able to respond, largely because of a mistake by Auburn. A technical foul on the bench led to Lewis draining two free throws before Petty knocked down a shot to take advantage of the extra possession and make it 43-31 as the lead grew back to 12 points.

From that point forward, however, the game completely turned into the Tigers’ favor.

They went on an 18-2 run over the next few minutes, including taking their first lead since it was 2-0 at 47-45 due to four turnovers in three minutes by the Tide.

Auburn was never able to run away with the game, but also never gave up the lead the remainder of the night.

Thanks to a strong dunk from Donta Hall to tie the game, and great play from Jones down the stretch, Alabama hung tough and had the game tied at 60-60 late following the big 3-pointer from Mack.

In the end, however, two late turnovers by Lewis and two big layups by Harper made the difference.

“I was looking to attack,” Harper said. “Coming down the stretch, I knew it was on me. I missed a couple early in the game, but was able to get to the basket and finish them to close it out.”

Harper’s strong play completed a second-half comeback that started with the impressive play from Okeke.

He led the team with a double-double thanks to 17 points and 14 rebounds as well as three assists to lead the team in that category. Harper ended the game with 16 points, while tying for a team-high three assists.

The first half of the game heavily favored Alabama 

After falling behind 2-0 1:14 into the game thanks to a jumper from Okeke, Alabama went on a 12-0 run thanks to back-to-back steals from Lewis and Petty, which led to easy layups, followed by back-to-back 3-pointers from Petty and Mack.

Harper then answered with a 3-pointer of his own to end the early onslaught from Alabama, but the torrid pace from the Crimson Tide was tough for the Tigers to keep up with in the early going.

Alabama continued using great ball movement to eventually pull back ahead by 10 points at 19-9 following a triple from Lewis.

At that point in the game, the Tide was shooting 73 percent from the field, while the Tigers were 33 percent from the field with 12:45 remaining in the opening half.

Auburn flipped the script briefly following Alabama’s hot start. Anfernee McLemore knocked down a 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of more than four minutes for the Tigers, and following a layup from J’Von McCormick they made it a 5-0 run to cut the deficit 19-14.

All of a sudden, the Tigers had cut it to five points, while Alabama had gone zero for its last five field goals and hadn’t scored a basket in 3:36 of game time.

Alabama, however, was again able to extend the lead back to 10 points. Following a layup from Riley Norris and dunk from Donta Hall to end the scoring drought, Norris was able to knock down a 3-pointer on a second look to put the Tide on top 26-16.

The Crimson Tide eventually made it 29-16 for their largest lead of the game thanks to a free throw from Dazon Ingram and a physical layup from Mack, before Bryce Brown hit his only shot of the first half on a key 3-pointer for the Tigers.

Auburn battled back slightly to close out the half and kept from going down by double digits at the halftime break cutting Alabama’s lead to 32-23.

In the end, however, the Crimson Tide was unable to continue that insanely hot shooting in the second half.

After shooting 14-26 from the field in the first 20 minutes, Alabama shot just 8-23 in the second half, including 1-8 from beyond the arc, while also turning the ball over 11 times in the half compared to just four turnovers from the Tigers.

Alabama was led by Lewis with 13 points and three assists, while posting four rebounds. Petty had a team-high nine rebounds with eight points while Jones and Mack had 11 and 10 points, respectively.

After the win, Bruce Pearl also had a heartfelt message for those affected by the Lee County tornados over the weekend.

“The storm was about 8 miles from my doorstep,” Pearl said. “Right down the road. People that were in that storm shop at the same grocery story I shop at. The loss of life is extremely tragic and there’s no way to replace that. So now what we need to do is rebuild, love on them and support them in any way that we can. Auburn University is going to play a major role in a long period of time to support our neighbors.”