After the Auburn High and Opelika boys split their first two meetings this year, Auburn’s fans packed its home court Thursday eager to see their side get the upper hand.
Fortunately for the Auburn faithful, Eli Elston and the Tigers obliged.
Elston and the Tigers pushed the pace on Opelika, who had no answer in Auburn’s 54-43 victory. Auburn took the game over in the first half by building an 18-point lead and maintained it to get revenge after a four-point loss to the Bulldogs on Jan. 3.
“(Pushing the pace) really helped us tremendously. I have certain groups that I feel confident to do a full-court press. I do have to go small in that situation. I have to take my bigs out, but when we do Jay Baker and Eli (Elston), my goodness. He was playing like a man possessed,” Auburn boys coach Chris Brandt said. “He was getting rebounds, pushing them up and then he was following the fast break. If we missed a layup, he got another rebound. He played out of his mind tonight, and I hope he can continue that.
“I’m just overall pleased with the whole bunch. They played a team game, and that’s how we win.”
Auburn (16-10) held a four-point lead after the game’s opening eight minutes but effectively opened it up by using its speed to its advantage. The Tigers forced multiple Opelika mistakes and converted them into fast-break points, which the Bulldogs (8-15) were unable to stop again and again.
Elston finished fastbreak after fastbreak in the second quarter as the Tigers pulled away. His best arguably came with 5:24 before the break when he caught a pass, drove into the lane, narrowly avoided a flopping Bulldog then delivered a layup to put Auburn ahead 22-12.
From that point until halftime, the Tigers pieced together a 12-4 scoring run to go into the locker room with an 18-point advantage.
The second half was merely a formality despite Opelika’s attempts to close the gap. The scoring slowed down as the Tigers milked the clock and picked up another victory before the regular season ended.
Elston led the way with a team-high 10 points to go with seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks. Jayden Buckley followed with nine points.
For Opelika, Brandon Howard registered a game-high 13 points in the loss.
Auburn has one more regular season game before it plays either Central-Phenix City or Smiths Station in the Area 4-7A tournament title game on Saturday, Feb. 8. Based on how Brandt’s Tigers have playing as of late, he likes their chances to keep the momentum going in that important game.
“They’re playing with confidence, and as long as they keep on playing with confidence and really pick each other up (we’ll be fine),” Brandt said. “They’re doing a great job on the bench and helping them out as the game goes along. If everybody stays in focus with the game and helps each other out, that’s how I feel we’re going to go far.”
Opelika girls take care of Auburn
Although the night didn’t end well for Opelika’s fans, the Lady Bulldogs treated their side to a comfortable 61-38 victory in the opener.
The Opelika girls wasted no time in asserting their dominance against their biggest rival, as they poked hole after hole in the Lady Tigers’ defense and piled up well-earned points.
Auburn hit the court without head coach Courtney Pritchett (illness), and his absence was noticeable as the team lacked answers. The Lady Tigers struggled mightily shooting from the floor, as the Lady Tigers went 0-for-7 from shots inside the arc as Opelika raced out to a 24-9 lead.
“I thought we just did a good job at the beginning of rebounding and boxing out on the defensive end,” Opelika girls coach Devin Booth said. “I thought we did a really good job defensively to kind of give us a spark. We settled into the offense. I liked the way we worked together offensively.”
Opelika (23-6) didn’t let up before halftime, either.
The Bulldogs’ lock-down defense kept Auburn (15-7) from scoring until the 2:13 mark of the second quarter while they continued to push the pace on offense. Opelika got several players involved in the scoring, and by the time the teams went to the locker room the Lady Bulldogs had an 18-point advantage.
The Lady Bulldogs kept it going through the remaining 16 minutes of action to officially sweep their rival in a season for the first time since 2013-2014.
Kaitlyn Bryant and Haley Sanders tied for a game-high 14 points, with Bryant chipping in nine rebounds and Sanders contributing six, respectively. Ananda Hughley followed with 11 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
“She’s just brought a lot of energy defensively,” Booth said of Sanders. “She got her hands on some balls, and she runs the floor really, really well. Her teammates do a good job of getting her the ball when she does run the floor. I think she got a few put-backs, too, so that didn’t hurt. She really came out with a lot of energy.”
Auburn’s Olivia Porter had no points until 44 seconds left in the opening half, but the sophomore responded and led her squad with 13 points in addition to four assists and four steals.
The Lady Bulldogs are done on the court until Thursday when they play the winner of Benjamin Russell and Russell County for the Area 6-6A championship. For Booth, the game against Auburn and Opelika’s game earlier this week against Carver-Montgomery offered a great measuring stick before next week.
“We knew we had a good team to play tonight, and we had a good team in Carver on Tuesday. We were glad for that week to kind of give us a test to see where we were,” Booth said. “I think we’ve seen some things we need to fix and work on before the area tournament.”