No. 22 Auburn surges back into Top 25 ahead of SEC tourney

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              Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl celebrates his 84-80 win over Tennessee after an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 9, 2019, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett)
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AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — The Auburn Tigers limped down the stretch of their best season in nearly two decades last year. Now, the Tigers have rebounded from some earlier struggles and head into the postseason on a decidedly different note.

No. 22 Auburn (22-9, 11-7 Southeastern Conference) climbed back into the rankings Monday after toppling No. 8 Tennessee 84-80 to close the regular season.

“We’re in a much better position this year going into the postseason because of the health of our team, the depth of our bench and perhaps the quality of our play,” Tigers coach Bruce Pearl said Monday.

“I think part of it is just the fact that when you end the season and you’re at Georgia and at Alabama , then you’ve got Mississippi State and Tennessee at home, it raises the quality of your play simply by (knowing) if you don’t you’re going to get beat.”

The Tigers, who have lost their opening SEC tournament game three years in a row, face the Missouri-Georgia winner Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee.

A year ago, the Tigers shared the regular-season league title with Tennessee but lost forward Anfernee McLemore to a late-season ankle injury and had guard Bryce Brown nursing a shoulder injury. Auburn lost three of its last four games entering the NCAA Tournament, and was knocked out in the second round.

“That was the difference last year,” Brown said after Saturday’s win over the Volunteers. “I had a few injuries. Anfernee wasn’t here to help us. Now that that problem I feel like is fixed, I feel like we can go as far as we want.

“We don’t have anything that’s holding us back. I feel like we’re very close to playing our best basketball.”

Auburn still isn’t fully healthy. Center Austin Wiley has missed the past six games with a lower right leg injury. Pearl hasn’t ruled out Wiley playing in the SEC tournament, saying he will travel to Nashville and could resume practicing this week.

But forward Chuma Okeke is coming off two huge games — 17 points, 14 rebounds at Alabama and 22 points against Tennessee. And Auburn ended the season with some big wins.

The winning streak came after an 80-53 loss at No. 4 Kentucky. Auburn also started 2-4 in the SEC and added a three-game losing streak in January before regrouping for a strong closing run.

Now, the Tigers are fresh from the program’s first win over a Top 5 team since 1995. Tennessee was No. 5 coming into the regular-season finale.

“You have to do the stuff like that if you’re going to consider yourself a top-25 program,” Pearl said.

Now, a team that ended a 15-year NCAA Tournament drought last season may be starting to peak at the right time — unlike last year.

“I would say we are playing our best basketball,” Pearl said.