Isaac Okoro has put the conference on notice.
The freshman is ready to take on the SEC.
Okoro scored a collegiate-high 23 points, muscled his way to a big game-deciding rebound, and the No. 5 Auburn men’s basketball team survived Vanderbilt 83-79 on Wednesday night in Auburn Arena.
Auburn held a slim 81-79 lead with less than 30 seconds left when Okoro pulled down that rebound to cap an important late stop for the Tigers — all after Vanderbilt’s hot shooting in the second half brought the Commodores back close. Okoro hit one free throw on the other end after drawing the foul to make it a three-point game. Then, after an Auburn steal down the floor, Auburn was on its way to a perfect 14-0 and 2-0 in the SEC in roaring Auburn Arena.
Danjel Purifoy came up with that next steal and J’Von McCormick hit a free throw to give the game its final score. Vanderbilt fell to 8-6 and 0-1 in the SEC. Okoro high-fived fans courtside after Auburn came up with one more stop to seal it with 2.2 seconds left.
Okoro’s sensational play led the way. After he scored 17 in the first half alone, his highlight-of-the-night dunk over Vanderbilt’s 6-foot-10 center Ejike Obinna put Auburn up by 10 with just less than 12 minutes to play.
Vanderbilt went 5-of-7 from 3-point range in the second half to charge back, while hitting 50 percent of its shots in the game, but Okoro and the rest kept Auburn in front and the Tigers won their first game back in the top five in nearly 20 years.
Austin Wiley recorded a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Purifoy scored another 12 points.
“Beast, man,” Purifoy said to describe Okoro. “He’s not a freshman in our eyes. He plays like a man and that’s what we expect from him.”
Okoro’s previous career-high came when he scored 18 points against Furman in nonconference play. He also pulled down six rebounds and dished three assists on Wednesday night.
“He plays like a senior,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. “He knows how to defend. He knows how to communicate. He’s not afraid of the moment. He makes big plays.
“Obviously, he’s so much fun to play-call for, because he can do things inside and out. And every time he puts the ball on the floor and takes it to the basket, he scores or gets fouled.”
Anfernee McLemore scored 14 in the first half alone, nearly matching strides with Okoro as the two took on starring roles for the Auburn offense in the first half. The trouble was on the defensive end, where Auburn gave up 38 first-half points, tied for the most its given up in a first half this season.
Vanderbilt’s 79 points marked the most Auburn’s given up this season.
Meanwhile, Auburn’s offense was “a little discombobulated,” Pearl said. The Tigers hit 1-of-9 3-point attempts in the second half.
But Okoro hit five of six shots from the floor in the first half. Then on that big dunk in the second half, he charged unassisted from the midcourt logo, leapt a third of the way up the key and slammed down his dunk through contact for the and-1 opportunity over Obinna. Okoro added the free throw to make it 60-49 with 11:40 left.
“I just knew I had to be aggressive coming out in the game, just getting to the free-throw lines and just getting their bigs in foul trouble, so that’s just what I decided to do,” Okoro said.
Vanderbilt charged back, led by the SEC’s leading scorer Aaron Nesmith, but Auburn came up big in the big moments down the stretch.
Auburn led 82-79 with 20 seconds left when Purifoy came up with his steal on the inbounds pass, moments after Okoro’s clutch rebound.
Purifoy was asked what he saw on that play: “A ‘W,’” he smiled. “Once I got it, I just knew the game was over then. So it was a great feeling.”
Auburn hosts rival Georgia on Saturday. Tipoff is set for 5 p.m. The game is set to be televised nationally on ESPN.