Paradise Island, Bahamas — Jabari Smith looked comfortable bidding for No. 19 Auburn, while Walker Kessler continued to work the glass and protect the rim against an opponent who reached Weekend Two from last season’s NCAA Tournament.
It’s a good harbinger for Bruce Pearl’s young frontcourt.
Smith had 14 points and Kessler had his second straight double-double at Battle 4 Atlantis, helping the Tigers regroup from a double-overtime loss and beat Loyola Chicago 62-53 in Thursday’s consolation round.
“Jabari, I think, has shown he’s the best player here,” Pearl said. “Walker has shown he is the best rim protector here. And I thought our kids had really progressed.
Auburn advanced to Friday’s fifth-place game and will face Syracuse. The game starts at 4:30 p.m. The Orange beat Arizona State, 92-84, Thursday night.
Smith, a 6-foot-10 forward, made 7 of 9 shots for the game. That included a return-to-the-basket job and a U-turn to shoot a defender, which the NBA’s top rookie and prospect showed fluidity. He made a few key baskets in the final minutes: a turnover in the lane on a defender near the 5-minute mark, then a turnover on Lucas Williamson for a 58-51 lead with 2:27 remaining.
Smith had 19 of his 22 points after halftime in Wednesday’s 115-109 double-overtime loss to No. 22 UConn.
“I would just say it sets me up for some more big games,” Smith said. “Every game in the SEC is going to be tough, it’s going to be tough. So just playing against tougher competition, playing against tougher competition shows where we are and shows how strong we are together. And I take advantage of it.”
Kessler added 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks for the Tigers (4-1), which limited the Ramblers to just two field goals in 11 minutes in the second half. It helped the Tigers to a 10-point margin heading into the final minutes of a chilly second half for the Ramblers (4-2).
Marquise Kennedy scored 13 points to lead the Ramblers (4-2), who shot 62% in the first half. But Loyola Chicago’s offense struggled to string together baskets to create a rhythm, and outside shooting struggles after halftime were amplified as Auburn began to expand their late margin.
Loyola Chicago shot just 8 of 26 (31%) after halftime.
“We just have to keep throwing the ball with confidence,” Kennedy said. “A few ins and outs, all good shots. We just have to keep shooting and eventually they will fall. … The second half, it dropped a bit. But at the end of the day, we just have to keep shooting with confidence.
Auburn was coming off a savage 115-109 loss to No. 22 UConn in the first round on Wednesday. He had to prepare less than 24 hours later for this one against a team that made it to the NCAA Sweet 16 last year. But Auburn played up front for the final 16 minutes and kept control of the schools’ first-ever meeting.
Loyola Chicago lost its first-round game to Michigan State on a last-second alley-oop dunk. They responded with a strong offensive first half against Auburn, but didn’t connect on a second-half 3 until Kennedy with 2:49 left, when they were down eight.
Loyola Chicago made 6 of 13 3-pointers in the first half, including three from Braden Norris. But those shots weren’t falling after halftime, with the Ramblers missing their first seven attempts and going 1 in 10.
“I thought we took some bad ones,” first-year coach Drew Valentine said. “I thought we helped them. Obviously, they’re an extremely athletic team who do a good job of pressuring the ball and accelerating you.
“So you have to give them credit for having us take a few hastily, for having us take some deep and earlier ones. But in the first half, I liked the 3 we got.