AUBURN — It was clear from the opening seconds of Saturday’s game that Lehigh did not have an answer for Austin Wiley.
The 6-foot-11 center scored Auburn’s first points off a feed inside, something Bruce Pearl has urged his team to do more of. A few minutes later, with the home team’s offense floundering, he grabbed the rebound off a missed 3 and threw down a dunk that injected some life into a quiet Auburn Arena.
Wiley finished the game with his fourth double-double of the season, 14 points and 15 rebounds, hitting 3 of 6 shots from the floor and 8 of 8 attempts from the free throw line. The No. 12-ranked Tigers won, 74-51.
It was by no means pretty, especially early. But when you have a team full of players like Wiley, who are more physically dominant than any player on the other side, talent eventually takes over — a highlight-reel second half is proof of that.
J’Von McCormick hit three consecutive 3-pointers, then scored on an alley-oop for good measure. Anfernee McLemore blocked six shots to go along with his nine points and seven rebounds. Devan Cambridge tried to blow the roof off the building with a pair of dunks.
The Tigers go into the Christmas holiday 11-0 — the fourth-best start in program history — and winners of 23 of their last 24 games, with their only loss during that stretch coming in the Final Four to eventual national champion Virginia.
Here are three takeaways from Saturday’s win:
1. Auburn’s defense will grind you into dust.
The first half of Saturday’s game was the Tigers’ worst so far this season. They scored only 27 points, which is the fewest they’ve had going into the break.
But it could have been much, much worse. Auburn trailed Lehigh 20-13 after a very lackluster 13 minutes of basketball. The home team had hit just 6 of 21 shots at that point. The visitors were 9 of 18.
The ninth make was a layup from Jeameril Wilson with 7:17 to go before halftime. Lehigh didn’t score again until the opening seconds of the second half, a span of nearly eight minutes. It missed seven consecutive shots and turned the ball over five times.
Auburn went on a 14-0 run during that stretch to take a seven-point lead into halftime that it did not relinquish.
The Mountain Hawks cut their deficit to as little as four early in the second half, but again, the Tigers’ defense tightened up. The visitors went nearly five minutes without making another field goal, mustering only two free throws in the process. The Tigers scored 11 points, eight of which came right at the basket, to push their lead to 13.
Auburn closed the game on a 61-31 run after trailing 20-13 early. Lehigh finished the game shooting 35.8 percent from the floor and 2 of 11 from beyond the arc, and missed its final seven shots. The visitors turned the ball over 19 times, leading to 30 points for the home team on the other end.
2. Three-point shooting might become an issue.
The dam finally broke in the latter part of the second half. Auburn had barely been able to make a 3-pointer all evening against Lehigh. Then, in the span of just more than a minute, McCormick made three straight.
The senior point guard finished the game with a team-high 18 points on 7-for-12 shooting (4-for-7 from 3) to go along with four assists, two rebounds and a steal, and he didn’t turn the ball over once.
Still, it was not a great day for the Tigers from deep.
There was no expectation that this Auburn team would be better than last year’s from beyond the arc, or even as good. Not without Jared Harper, Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke, and not with the 3-point line moved back across college basketball.
But there wasn’t an expectation that the Tigers would struggle this much, either. They missed their first 10 attempts from beyond the arc against Lehigh’s zone defense on Saturday and finished the game just 6 of 28 (21.4 percent). Most of them weren’t bad looks, either. They just didn’t fall.
It’s the sixth time in 11 games that Auburn has shot worse than 32 percent from beyond the arc. It had only 10 such games all of last season.
On the plus side, the Tigers did make 22 of 28 free throw attempts (78.6 percent).
3. Allen Flanigan is becoming more of a factor.
Pearl has talked throughout the early part of the season about Auburn’s need for more contributors to step forward. The team knows what it will get from Wiley, McCormick, McLemore, Samir Doughty, Isaac Okoro and Danjel Purifoy, but you can’t win with just six.
Flanigan, the true freshman son of assistant coach Wes Flanigan, has begun to answer that call of late. He scored eight points in the win over Furman, then provided great defensive minutes against NC State when Okoro was out dealing with foul trouble.
He had another good game Saturday, scoring six points on 3 of 4 shooting and adding a rebound and a steal in 15 minutes off the bench.
It is by no means a breakout performance, but the more comfortable bench players like Flanigan get in their roles and the more they contribute, the better Auburn will be in the long run.
The Tigers have one more non-conference game (Dec. 29 against Lipscomb) before starting SEC play Jan. 4 at Mississippi State.