Three takeaways from Auburn’s 67-41 win over UNC Asheville

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Three takeaways from Auburn’s 67-41 win over UNC Asheville

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AUBURN — Based on rankings, performance and, well, just the look at the other team on the court Tuesday night at Auburn Arena, the game should have been a breeze.

Auburn entered the game ranked No. 8 in the AP Top 25 Poll. UNC Asheville came to town ranked 334th in KenPom out of 353 Division I teams.

And in the end, it was an easy win for Auburn. The final score was 67-41, improving the home team to 7-1 and the visitors to 1-7.

But the play probably wasn’t all that coach Bruce Pearl would hope for from his top-10 team against an overmatched opponent on its home floor.

"We played all right," center Austin Wiley said. "We didn’t play our best basketball, so the message was we can’t play down to the opponent. We just got to get better. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. We just got to play better basketball."

The 67 points marked the Tigers’ lowest scoring output this season; six fewer than it scored against Arizona in the final game of the Maui Invitational. Some of that could be attributed to the UNC Asheville consistently running down the shot clock on offense and playing a zone on defense which, while not overly effective, did seem to bother the home team some.

Auburn shot 37 percent from the floor and 25 percent from beyond the arc in the first half, taking a 15-point lead into the break. It turned the ball over a season-high 19 times.

"We weren’t as sharp. We’ve got to fix what we weren’t as sharp doing," Pearl said. "This team has been very, very businesslike. They clearly understand the business that’s in front of us. I know that they’ll continue to improve as we get challenged more and more."

Here are three takeaways from the victory:

1) Malik Dunbar and Austin Wiley continue to shine off the bench

Two weeks ago, after Auburn’s loss to then-No. 1 Duke at the Maui Invitational, Pearl challenged his reserves to do more for the team when they were on the floor. Dunbar and Wiley have consistently answered the call since.

Dunbar scored in double-figures in the next day’s win over Arizona and last week’s win over Saint Peter’s — the first time he’s done that in back-to-back games in his career — and nearly made it three straight with eight points on 3 of 4 shooting. He also recorded a team-high five steals and team-high-tying seven rebounds.

The senior wing is now averaging 12.3 points on 66.7 percent shooting over Auburn’s past three games.

Wiley also had a solid night against a Bulldogs team that didn’t have near the size to match up with his 6-foot-11, 260-pound frame in the post, scoring a team-high 14 points on 5 of 7 shooting to go along with four rebounds and five blocked shots. He has now scored in double-figures in five of seven games this season.

Pearl thinks he could have done even better on Tuesday, though.

"Austin Wiley was 5 for 7. He should’ve been 10 for 14," Pearl said. "I was really pleased to see him go 4 for 5 from the foul line, but he should’ve gone 10 times to the foul line and made 8. Part of that was, he didn’t do a good enough job getting open, we didn’t do a good enough job getting it to him, and I didn’t think our big guys took it to them on the inside. We had the advantage on the inside and we didn’t take full advantage of it."

Auburn center Austin Wiley (50) is fouled by UNC Asheville guard Jalen Seegars (11) during the second half at Auburn Arena on Dec. 4, 2018.

2) Auburn is very, very active on defense

UNC Asheville certainly helped Tuesday. The Bulldogs entered the game ranked dead last nationally turning the ball over on 29.9 percent of their offensive possessions, so it’s no wonder the Tigers were able to rack up 13 steals on defense.

Dunbar led the way with five, Anfernee McLemore had three, and Samir Doughty and Bryce Brown had two each. The home team turned 25 turnovers into 20 points.

But Auburn getting into passing lanes and picking the pocket of opposing players is nothing new. In fact, the Tigers entered the game leading the SEC with 9.9 steals per game.

Tuesday marked the fourth time in eight games that Auburn has recorded double-digit steals, and it has recorded at least four every time out.

Auburn also blocked 12 shots, setting a new season-high by four. Wiley had five, McLemore chipped in three and Chuma Okeke had two.

All of it helped the Tigers on a night where it was dominant on defense — the Bulldogs shot just 31.1 percent, and the 41 points they scored mark the fewest Auburn has allowed a 2013 victory over Alabama (37).

"I thought our defense was good tonight," Pearl said. "And sometimes, you know, your defense has got to carry you. Defense travels."

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl yells to his team during the first half against the UNC Asheville at Auburn Arena.

3) The next four games will provide a much stiffer test

The Tigers have played only twice since returning home from Maui on Thanksgiving day — a 50-point rout of Saint Peter’s last Wednesday and a 26-point win over UNC Asheville on Tuesday. Both those teams rank outside the KenPom top 240.

Starting Saturday, Auburn will play Dayton (90th in KenPom), UAB (179th), NC State (27th) and Murray State (111th) in the span of less than three weeks.

Those games should do a much better job of getting the Tigers ready for SEC play, which begins in January. So maybe it was a good idea to get Tuesday’s lackluster performance out of the way.

"We’re going to have to play much tougher against our next opponent," Pearl said. "Because they’re going to come in here and hit us in the mouth."

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