ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP)Auburn coach Bruce Pearl had just finished dissecting the Tigers’ workmanlike win over Davidson when someone asked how he and his players enjoyed their visit to the Naval Academy as the featured team of the Veterans Classic.
Pearl grinned, and his eyes brightened.
”To hear you say we’re the featured team, I have to smile because we’ve come a long way,” said Pearl, who took Auburn to the Final Four last season.
Pearl had many more thanks to dole out after Auburn (2-0) beat the Wildcats (0-1) 76-66, and his appreciation had little to do with screens, rebounds or 3-pointers.
His trip to Navy for the sixth annual Veterans Classic left him with a lasting memory and an intense appreciation for the Midshipmen who serve their country while getting an education and enduring military training.
”It was an honor to come here. We should be standing in line to come to this tournament and give our kids this kind of experience,” Pearl said. ”Invite us back. I’ll be happy to be here any time if you’ll have us.”
Making this visit far more pleasurable was the fashion in which the Tigers took apart Davidson. Isaac Okoro scored 17 points, Danjel Purifoy had 14 and Auburn shut down the Wildcats’ best shooters.
Returning two starters from last season’s magical team, Auburn never trailed. After letting a 13-point lead dwindle to 37-35 at halftime, the Tigers took control with a 12-1 run at the outset of the second half.
Purifoy contributed six points to the surge and guard Samir Doughty chipped in with two layups. Doughty finished with 11 points after scoring a team-high 20 in the opener against Georgia Southern.
East Carolina faced Navy in the nightcap of the one-night tournament that in the past has featured perennial powers Michigan State, North Carolina and Maryland.
Doughty and Anfernee McLemore are the two starters back from an Auburn squad that won the Southeastern Conference and beat Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament.
In this one, McLemore came off the bench to score 12 points.
Despite having all five starters back from a team that went 24-10 last season, Davidson got off to a shaky start in its 31st season under coach Bob McKillop.
”First-game anxiety,” McKillop said. ”We had uncharacteristic performances from a number of our guys. When you play a team like Auburn, an SEC team, a team that was in the Final Four last year, you can’t miss a beat. And we missed a couple of beats.”
The Wildcats went 18 for 55 from the field (32.7%) and got the majority of their points from Luke Frampton (18), Carter Collins (18) and redshirt freshman Mike Jones (14).
Jon Axel Gudmundsson, the reigning Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, was held to seven points. Kellan Grady, who averaged 17.3 points last season, scored only six points on 2-for-10 shooting, and Luka Brajkovic was held scoreless after averaging 11.1 ppg in 2018-19.
Their off-nights were a tribute to a switching defense that focused on Davidson’s potent trio of scorers.
”We took their strengths away from them,” Pearl said.
Davidson: The Wildcats looked like a team playing its first game of the season. Given the lackluster play of the team’s most notable players, McKillop can only hope this was simply an aberration.
”It’s certainly going to be a measuring stick for what we need to get better at,” McKillop said.
Said Jones: ”Starting with a game like this is obviously difficult but we don’t want to have an easy road. We want to challenge ourselves now so later in the season we can look back on this and take the lessons we learned from hard games.”
Auburn: The Tigers got off to an outstanding start in each half but looked sloppy at times. Still, this victory should impress pollsters who know Davidson finished second in the Atlantic 10.
”A really balanced effort,” Pearl said. ”We got enough from the 3 (6 for 24), we got to the foul line enough (22 for 35) and we did a pretty good job on the boards (38-33 advantage). Just real solid for a young team playing against a very experienced Davidson team.”
Davidson faces Charlotte on the road Tuesday night.
Auburn takes on South Alabama, which has already declared Tuesday night’s game a sellout. The Tigers beat the Jaguars 101-58 last year.
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