SAN DIEGO — It didn’t seem possible that Auburn basketball could have a worse offensive game than its SEC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Alabama, when it went more than 10 minutes without a made field goal at one point.
The Tigers shot 24.2 percent from deep and 68.2 percent from the free throw line against Alabama. Their offensive efficiency rating finished at 86.5.
Yet, in the NCAA Tournament against the College of Charleston, Auburn posted lower totals on all three of those figures — 20.8 percent, 46.9 percent and 84.4, respectively.
Auburn lost that Alabama game by 18 points. And it beat the College of Charleston by 4 points in a game that featured its second-best defensive efficiency of the season at 79.0.
“We know defense is the only way we are going to win games in this tournament,” junior Malik Dunbar said after the game. “I feel like in the second half, we really picked up our defensive effort.”
While the College of Charleston shot slightly better in the second half than the first half, Auburn created more havoc and bigger stops when they mattered most.
The Cougars, who entered the game turning the ball over a little more than 9 times per game, coughed it up 21 times against Auburn and had 11 in the second half.
“Auburn turned them over 21 times,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “What does that tell you about the effort and the energy by our kids? Because we were struggling offensively and just finding a way.”
That defense led to instant offense for an Auburn team that couldn’t do much in the half court. Auburn had 21 points off turnovers and 9 fast-break points.
“We were defending at a high level tonight,” sophomore small forward Mustapha Heron said. “We never had any doubt that we could rely on our defense. If our shot wasn’t fouling, we could stop them and hopefully get a layup on the other end.”
With Cougars starting point guard Joe Chealey clearly hampered by an ankle injury, Auburn turned up the heat on the College of Charleston’s highly touted backcourt. Chealey and shooting guard Grant Riller combined for 10 turnovers and just 3 assists.
“It was just putting pressure on their defense,” said freshman point guard Davion Mitchell, who had to play 20 minutes due to early foul trouble from Auburn starter Jared Harper. “They’ve never played against pressure guards like me and Bryce [Brown] and Jared. So just putting pressure on them just made them mess up everything.”
Behind Auburn’s pressure-heavy guards, the Tigers were anchored by junior center Horace Spencer.
The Tigers’ big man is known for his struggles with fouls, but he wasn’t whistled for a single one Friday. Spencer blocked two shots — including an emphatic, volleyball-like spike in the first half — and contested plenty more, disrupting the Cougars’ slow-it-down half-court offense.
“He did great,” Harper said. “He played hard and was just doing everything — taking charges, blocking shots, helping on ball screens — everything. He’s that glue guy that helped our defense tremendously.”
Spencer credited his success to taking full advantage of the scouting report and a little disrespect.
“They are one-dimensional,” Spencer said. “I knew in the back of my mind that they were going to go right. They could not go left, so they were going right. I made sure that they saw me on the right side every time. They know how I am on defense. They thought they had wide-open paint and an open lane, but that was not the case. You had me back there. You had Desean [Murray] back there and Chuma [Okeke] back there.”
Okeke, a freshman, blocked two shots and had a game-high 9 rebounds, 7 of them ending College of Charleston possessions. Murray fouled out but had a pair of steals on the defensive end.
That defense served the Tigers well down the stretch. While they hit their final 4 field goal attempts, the College of Charleston missed 3 of their last 5, including a game-tying 3-point try with a few ticks left on the clock.
Pearl said Auburn’s players are well aware that a better offensive performance will be needed in order to defeat No. 5 seed Clemson on Sunday in San Diego. But they know they can stay in any game with elite defense and board work.
“We have to defend and rebound,” Dunbar said. “That is how we are going to win the game, and that is how we are going to win in the tournament.”
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