AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Wendell Green Jr. scored 19 points and fellow transfer K.D. Johnson added 12 points off the bench as No. 22 Auburn led Morehead State wire to wire in a 77-54 win in Tuesday night’s season opener.
Four players scored in double figures for Bruce Pearl’s new-look Tigers, who had four newcomers in their starting lineup. Tiger veterans Devan Cambridge and Jaylin Williams added 11 and 10 points, respectively.
“I was pleased with the effort and the energy,” Pearl said, adding that the Tigers’ “defensive effort was really, really special.”
In addition to Eastern Kentucky point guard Green and former Georgia shooting guard Johnson, freshman forward Jabari Smith recorded eight points and six rebounds in his Auburn debut. Walker Kessler, a transfer center from North Carolina, tallied six points, six rebounds and five blocks.
Defense set the tone for Auburn, as Morehead State didn’t score until the 14:39 mark of the first half and didn’t get out of single digits until there was 4:30 left before halftime. The Tigers forced 17 turnovers from the visiting Eagles.
Morehead State was led by freshman Johni Broome, who had 12 points and eight rebounds. Sophomore Ta’lon Cooper added 11 points.
STICKING WITH IT
After needing to rally to beat Division II Southern Indiana in an exhibition last week, Pearl said he considered changing his starting lineup from the preseason. Auburn’s coaching staff couldn’t come to a consensus, and Pearl kept the same five for the opener. The Tigers responded by opening the game on a 35-6 run.
“Obviously, I threatened (the players) with their jobs,” Pearl said. “And sometimes, when your job is threatened, you respond or you get replaced. And they responded very well.”
TURNING DOWN THE TURNOVERS
Due to constant absences at the point guard position, Auburn turned the ball over on 21% of its possessions last season. But in their opener, the Tigers turned the ball over just six times on 66 trips down the floor.
In addition to his trio of deep 3-pointers and five rebounds, Green didn’t commit a turnover from the point guard position in Pearl’s up-tempo offense.
“I think I played pretty well,” Green said. “I just wish some of my shots in the second half would have fallen.”
Like many teams across college basketball, Tuesday night marked the first time Auburn was able to play in front of a full-capacity crowd in more than a year. The Tigers’ student section, “The Jungle,” was completely full an hour before tipoff — and the players fed off their energy throughout the night.
“It was electric,” Kessler said. “Last season with COVID and not having as many fans out there, all the fans wanted to be out there tonight. And they were unbelievable.”
Morehead State: The Eagles trailed by as many as 29 points in the first half, but still found ways to score efficiently on a tough SEC defense in the second half. The key for Preston Spradlin’s offense will be ball security, as it ranked toward the bottom of Division I in turnover percentage a season ago.
Auburn: Pearl cautioned fans about a possible slow start, but his revamped lineup showcased both relentless defense and impressive offensive balance early against a team that made the NCAA Tournament last season. But the Tigers’ half-court offense cooled off in a big way after halftime, suggesting it will take more time for Auburn to develop consistency.