It was a preview of the Sugar Bowl on the 125th birthday of basketball as the Auburn and Oklahoma basketball squads squared off in Connecticut. This Big 12-SEC showdown, with far fewer implications than on the football field less than two weeks away, featured a young Tigers team coached by Bruce Pearl taking on Lon Kruger’s scrappy Sooners who looked to avoid a three-game skid to close non-conference play.
OU was also dealt a big blow before tip-off, as leading scorer Jordan Woodard was a late scratch with an aggravated groin. It was the senior guard’s first missed start in 115 games in an OU uniform, and the Sooners would miss his 17.6 points per game (3rd in Big 12) and his late-game leadership and heroics. It would be a trial by fire as the supporting cast was forced to step up in Woodard’s absence against a potent Auburn team powered by high-scoring freshmen Mustapha Heron, Danjel Purifoy and Jared Harper.
Starting in place of Woodard at the point was freshman Jordan Shepherd, playing in his second-ever college game, and sophomore Christian James was back in the lineup after beginning the Memphis game on the bench. Shepherd came up with a big block on a three in Auburn’s first possession, and found Khadeem Lattin for a layup and the first basket of the ball game on the other end for the Sooners. The Sooners were crashing the boards early — something that would need to continue given some expected early shooting woes.
.@LonKruger sends out his fifth starting lineup of the season.— Oklahoma Basketball (@OU_MBBall) December 22, 2016
Auburn’s first points came at the foul line, and the Tigers held a 4-3 advantage before the first timeout five minutes into the game. The Sooners came out of the timeout and capitalized on a steal and breakaway dunk by Shepherd. Bruce Pearl’s bunch would answer back quickly with a corner three and a steal-and-layup by Heron. The Tigers leading scorer was suddenly looking to feast on an inexperienced and banged up Sooner team before Rashard Odomes stopped a 7-0 Auburn run with a drive and dunk down the lane.
Near the midway point of the first half, Auburn led Oklahoma 11-7 on 4-of-12 shooting to the Sooners dismal 3-of-16 mark to start the game. Coming out of the second timeout, OU redshirt freshman forward Matt Freeman connected from long range, but the Tigers answered back with a couple of buckets to extend the lead to 17-10. OU was 4-of-22 shooting from the field, 1-of-7 from 3, along with six turnovers at the 7:21 mark in the first half when Jamuni McNeace finally stopped the bleeding with two straight hook shots in the lane.
But the Tigers again answered back and stretched their lead to 25-14 with a little less than six minutes left in the first half before OU freshman Kameron McGusty scored on a tough floater. McGusty’s bucket improved the Sooners lights-out shooting to a whopping 7-of-32 with under 3:30 to go in the first. As Auburn extended the lead to 10 at 29-19, Rashard Odomes drove and threw down a drunk in the lane, only to see the Sooners surrender another three at the other end.
The pattern was becoming evident: every OU action was met with an equal or slightly better reaction by Auburn as the Sooners failed to cut the lead under five the rest of the way and the Tigers took a 34-22 advantage into halftime. McNeace led the Sooners with seven points and three rebounds, as OU shot 8-of-34 in an offensively challenged first half.
Jordan Shepherd opened Oklahoma’s second-half scoring with a two-point bucket followed by a nice dish to a cutting Christian James for a dunk to close the Auburn lead to 11. But Mustapha Heron came right back again on the other end with a high-rising jumper to put the Tigers back up 13 at 39-26. Heron connected again, this time on a three, as the sweet-shooting lefty found a rhythm while playing in his home state. As fouls and turnovers began to mount up against the Sooners, Auburn had its’ biggest lead of the night at 17.
The pace appeared to pick up after a timeout from Kruger to stop the run as the Sooners answered with a pair of dunks, one from Odomes and the other a putback from Lattin. OU then clamped down on defense and cut the lead to eight following a corner three from James that appeared to be tipped in by an Auburn player. James then added an acrobatic layup soon after to bring the Sooners to within six at 45-39 with 11:33 to go in the game. A surging Auburn lead was suddenly matched by an OU comeback, as a group of young and seemingly unsure role players showed resiliency and heart without the Sooners’ leader and best player in the lineup.
Following a Bruce Pearl timeout and the eighth second-half turnover for the Tigers, Oklahoma reeled off five more points including another big three from Freeman to make it 47-44 with under 10 minutes to go. The resilient Tigers answered back with a three of their own as the 2016 Birthday of Basketball Classic suddenly (but briefly) turned into an up-and-down game. Despite the scoring flurry and amped-up second-half defense by the Sooners, Auburn went on another quick run to extend the lead to nine at 55-46 on the heels of diminutive guard Jared Harper. Jordan Woodard could only look on from the OU bench, as his young teammates just couldn’t keep up with the electric Auburn backcourt. Despite never leading in the game, however, the Sooners were somehow still in it — down just five with under five minutes to go.
Sooners have forced 20 Tiger turnovers - a season-high for both an OU opponent and for Auburn.— Oklahoma Basketball (@OU_MBBall) December 22, 2016
OU within 5 with 4:30 remaining.
After four straight points from Auburn gave the Tigers another nine-point cushion, Shepherd nailed a three to make it 64-58 with 2:26 to go. As aforementioned though, on this night every step forward for OU would be followed by a slightly bigger step by Auburn. A late drive and dunk from forward T.J. Dunans put an end to any late momentum the Sooners had hoped to gain, and the Auburn backcourt proved too much handle for the Woodard-less Sooners. Jared Harper and Company could not be contained late as the freshman point guard tied with Dunans for a game-high 21 points, while Heron added 15. OU continued to fight down the stretch and was only down six with 22.3 seconds left in the ballgame. But the valiant comeback by an inefficient yet industrious supporting cast ultimately came up short, 74-70.
Shepherd led the Sooners with 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting, while Odomes and James also reached double figures with 12 and 10 points respectively. OU fell to 6-5 on the season and look ahead to Big 12 play beginning against No. 4 Baylor on December 30. Auburn improved to 9-2, the school’s best start since the 2007-08 season.