By LARRY VAUGHT
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said his team’s second-half defense in Sunday’s 77-71 overtime win over Kentucky was “tremendous” and the main reason the Tigers are headed to the Final Four for the first time.
“Incredible ball pressure forced Kentucky out a way. We didn’t turn them over as much, but we were aggressive without fouling,” Pearl said.
Kentucky just 13 free throws the first half but only eight in the second half and overtime combined.
“Samir Doughty locked up one of the best offensive players in this tournament in Tyler Herro. I mean, he just took it on himself to make sure that he wasn’t going to get great looks and that then made them go to (PJ) Washington almost exclusively when Samir just locked his assignment up,” Pearl said.
Washington had 28 points and another double-double but Herro went just 3-for-11 from the field and had only seven points.
Pearl said Doughty’s play inspired Bryce Harper to do the same against UK point guard Ashton Hagans, who had seven turnovers and went 1-for-4 from 3-point range. He had 10 points and three assists in 38 minutes.
“Bryce at the end of the first half, Bryce started pressure up on Ashton,” Pearl said. “We know Ashton really well because we recruited him for four years, and we love Ashton. He came on campus, and if he wasn’t at Kentucky, he might have come to Auburn.
“But at some point Bryce Brown as a senior had to put pressure on Ashton and not let him get to spots on the floor. Our guys saw that in the halftime locker room. Samir came in at halftime said, ‘Guys, we’re going to win this game with our defense.'”
Pearl knew his team wouldn’t score 97 points against Kentucky like it did in Friday’s win over North Carolina. He was right but guards Brown and Jared Harper — after a slow start — combined for 50 points.
“You have to take what the defense gives you, because Kentucky was switching and putting so much pressure on the perimeter. We were able to get Jared downhill. Bryce made some huge plays. They took the 3 ball away, so Bryce went to his old school pull-up game,” Pearl said. “He didn’t think he had it, but he got in the lane, rose up, and them suckers were beautiful, great basketball.
“Listen, for me, in the second half, all I did was get — try to get out of the way, get the ball to Jared or Bryce.”