Auburn came to Nashville with one goal. To cut down the nets. The Tigers turned that goal into reality Sunday with an 84-64 win over Tennessee to earn the program’s first SEC tournament championship since 1985.
“I’m happy for our team, our university,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. “The championship means so much because it might have been the best year the SEC has had in how many years? And Auburn is its tournament champion? That says a lot about these guys, our coaching staff, and the program.”
In what was a dominant performance from Auburn, it was the Tigers who looked more like the team vying for a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament on Sunday.
The defense was stingy in the first half, forcing 10 turnovers and holding Tennessee to just 23 points. And the defense turned to offense in the second half when the 3s started falling. Auburn made 10 of 20 shots from beyond the arc in the final 20 minutes, and the lead grew to as many as 23 at one point.
Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke led the way with 19 and 18 points respectively.
Brown, the tournament MVP, set the record for most 3-pointers in an SEC tournament (18) after knocking down five triples in Sunday’s final. The senior scored in double figures in all four of Auburn’s games this week and averaged 16.5 points per game for the tournament.
“It means so much,” Brown said. “First off, it’s a blessing from the man upstairs. He’s blessed us in so many ways. Even when we didn’t see light at the end of the tunnel, he gave us that light at the end of the day. We still have a lot more to prove, a lot more to accomplish as a team.”
Okeke caught fire in the second half as he scored 14 of his 18 points after halftime and made 4 of his 6 shots from deep. The sophomore big man also pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds and helped hold Tennessee’s two stars, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, to a combined 17 points. It was a breakout performance from Okeke, who had struggled to get in a rhythm the past two games.
“Chuma is a pro,” Pearl said. “He’s such a versatile player. People don’t recognize. He’s the best defensive player in our league. It’s not a knock to anybody else, but Chuma is always in the right places. He can cover anybody. He’s patient. He does what’s required of him. He’s a great, great teammate.”
Brown and Okeke might get most of the recognition following Sunday’s game, but Auburn doesn’t win a championship this week without the play of its bench.
When point guard Jared Harper picked up his second foul early in the first half, backup J’Von McCormick stepped in and played the final 18 minutes, helping Auburn build a 32-23 halftime lead. In the second half, reserve forward Danjel Purifoy knocked down a pair of clutch 3s. The junior was third on the team with 10 points despite only playing 10 minutes.
Between McCormick, Purifoy, Horace Spencer, Samir Doughty and Austin Wiley, Auburn’s bench scored 30 points to Tennessee’s 10. The Tigers finished with 105 points off the bench in the SEC tournament.
Not that there was any doubt, but Auburn officially punched its ticket to the Big Dance with the win on Sunday. It will be the second straight appearance in the NCAA tournament for the Tigers and the program’s 10th appearance in the field all-time.
“We’re obviously going to celebrate this tonight,” Pearl said. “We’ll probably wake up in the morning feeling good about it. Then we’ll try to represent the SEC as its tournament champion in the NCAA tournament.”