PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Even after playing two overtimes on Wednesday, No. 19 Auburn’s deeper bench allowed the Tigers to retire in the second half against Loyola Chicago 24 hours later in a 62-53 Thanksgiving victory at Battle 4 Atlantis.
“That’s what makes us a good team trying to be a great team,” Auburn coach said Bruce Pearl, who split playing time between 10 Tigers. “I think fatigue was absolutely a factor in that game.”
Statistics confirm Pearl’s assessment. In the second half, Loyola was 1-for-10 on 3-pointers after shooting 46.2% in the first half from behind the line and 61.9% overall.
“The depth of our team allows us to play despite the fatigue,” said the second Auburn Walker Keslerwho recorded his second double-double in 24 hours with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Wendell Green Jr. hit a pair of 3-pointers deep on back-to-back possessions to give Auburn a 44-40 lead early in the second period. Green scored his 10 points after intermission, adding four rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Jabari Smith took over from there, making Auburn’s next four baskets, including a turnover jumper in the paint on multiple defenders to extend the Tigers’ lead to 55-46.
“We rolled it in there and posted it,” Pearl said. “He took tough catches, he had good rhythm in his game, he scored through contact, he was strong with the ball, he didn’t turn it over. When you add that inside aspect as well as the perimeter offense, now all of a sudden he’s the complete package.”
“He hit some shots that not many people in the world can parry,” Loyola coach Drew Valentine said.
Smith led the Tigers with 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting and grabbed four rebounds in a team-high 29 minutes.
“It sets me up for more big games,” the 6-10 rookie said. “Every game in the SEC is going to be tough and challenging. Playing against tougher, tougher competition shows how much together we are, and I appreciate that.”
The Ramblers cut Auburn’s lead to five with 1:37 left, but Green tossed Kessler for a dunk, then Kessler blocked a shot 11 seconds later, leading to a pair of free throws from Green for the last points of the game.
Kessler added four blocks and a pair of interceptions. Auburn edged Loyola 36-26.
“Jabari has shown he’s the best player here,” Pearl said. “Walker has shown he’s the best rim protector here. I think our kids have really improved.”
Any worries that Auburn’s reservoir might be less than full after Wednesday’s double-overtime thriller against UConn were quickly dispelled when the Tigers took a 7-0 lead in the first 73 seconds.
K.D. Johnson picked up where he left off on Wednesday when he scored a career-high 27 points, making two early interceptions, assisting on Devan Cambridge transition dunk, then hit a 3-pointer.
Kessler’s pullback gave Auburn its biggest halftime lead at 22-15, but the Ramblers used a 7-0 run to go ahead 30-29 before Zep Jasper jumper with 18 seconds left gave Auburn a 34-32 halftime lead.
Johnson made four of Auburn’s eight steals in the first half, giving him an 18-11 advantage in points on turnovers. Jasper had five of the Tigers’ nine assists in the half and added one in the second half to finish with six.
The Tigers (4-1) wrap up Battle 4 Atlantis on Friday against Syracuse at 3:30 p.m. CT, each team’s third game in three days.
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jeff_shearer