The matchup to watch as Auburn looks to clinch a title at Mississippi State
The Tigers are one win away from an SEC crown, but they'll have to end a road losing streak against a team led by a dangerous type of point guard.
PG/SG Zep Jasper (Matthew Shannon/Auburn Athletics)
Jabari Smith had just cut Tennessee’s lead to three points with just under a minute left when Volunteers point guard Kennedy Chandler worked the ball up the floor for one of the biggest possessions of the game.
K.D. Johnson was matched up with Chandler, who called off an early screen attempt and dribbled the clock down near midcourt. With 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Chandler accepted a high ball screen from veteran center John Fulkerson.
Johnson aggressively went under the screen as Walker Kessler stayed on Fulkerson. Chandler briefly hesitated, which caused Johnson to extend out aggressively. Chandler used that brief opening to get by Johnson. With Kessler behind the play, Chandler had an opportunity to get a shot off without challenging the nation’s best shot blocker or the 6-foot-10 Jabari Smith.
Chandler’s floater from just inside the free-throw line hit high off the back of the rim, but it was still able to rattle home. Tennessee was back up by two possessions, now with 32 ticks left on the clock, and Auburn’s chances at pulling off an improbable last-minute comeback were extremely slim.
The shot got some friendly bounces, and Auburn’s defensive coverage wasn’t poor. But Chandler’s ability to get past Johnson and hit the most important shot of the game stuck out.
“I think that was a pretty consistent theme,” Bruce Pearl said after the loss. “Were our guards able to keep them in front? Not very much. And then your shot-blocker’s got to come over and help and give up backside rebounding. Our guards couldn’t keep their guards in front, and it really cost us a lot, it was probably our one-on-one close-outs.”
For Chandler, the floater was his fifth 2-point field goal on 10 attempts against Auburn’s defense. He also shot six free throws, which matched fellow guard Santiago Vescovi’s number of attempts from the charity stripe.
Two days later, Pearl softened his instant-reaction view of Auburn’s defense against Tennessee. There were moments when the Tigers had difficulty staying in front of the likes of Chandler and Vescovi, but they still held the Volunteers to less than a point per possession on their home floor.
“You know, I thought, in the halfcourt, our guys did a pretty good job staying in front of Tennessee,” Pearl said Monday. “Look, from my standpoint, you hold Tennessee to 67 points at home and they shoot 32 or 33 percent — man, you just can’t fault our kids’ effort, right? I mean, you just can’t — 67 points and 33 percent?
“Now, Tennessee is a good defensive team, we had a hard time scoring, we didn’t take care of the ball, and they killed us on the boards. Even on the boards, it wasn’t just about our effort. Our effort was good. They were just quicker to the ball. But yeah, so, we’ve got to work on trying to stay in front.”
Improving in that area will be critical in Auburn’s attempt to end a three-game losing streak away from home and clinch an SEC championship for only the fourth time in program history.
Mississippi State is one of the few teams that can match up with the Tigers in terms of frontcourt size, with the 6-foot-11 Tolu Smith and 6-foot-9 Auburn native Garrison Brooks leading the way.
The Bulldogs have been a strong rebounding team for most of the season, and they score a higher percentage of their points on 2-point field goals than anyone else in the SEC.
But that’s not all due to the big men down low. No, the one who makes it all go for Ben Howland’s Bulldogs is 6-foot-3 Panamanian point guard Iverson Molinar.