Alabama 94, Auburn 90: 3 things we learned as Sharife Cooper stars in debut but Tigers lose thriller

by 24USATVJan. 9, 2021, 9 p.m. 19
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The result still was not what Auburn basketball wanted. The Tigers committed three turnovers in the final two minutes, and Sharife Cooper missed back-to-back 3-pointers that would have tied the game late.

Rival Alabama won, 94-90, to extend Auburn’s losing streak to four games at the start of SEC play.

But there are a lot more positives to take from this loss than there were the three that came before it. Cooper's debut for Auburn (6-6, 0-4) is a big reason why.

More:Sharife Cooper: 4 things to know about Auburn basketball 5-star freshman point guard

"Once again, we gave ourselves a chance," coach Bruce Pearl said. "Probably going to look back as a missed opportunity because I think Alabama was down their point guard (Jahvon Quinerly), and having Sharife back was an advantage because there was no tape on him so you couldn't anticipate what he was going to do."

Here are three things we learned:

1. Sharife Cooper is exactly who everyone thought he could be

That's the good news. The five-star freshman was deemed eligible by the NCAA just hours before tip Saturday.

Cooper got off to a slow start, which you could reasonably expect after he missed 11 games and 72 days of practice. But once he got his feet under him late in the first half, the Tigers started to look like a completely different team.

They trailed 21-12 with fewer than nine minutes remaining in the first half before he recorded his first assist. That play, a 3-pointer from Jamal Johnson, sparked a 24-16 Auburn run to end the first half. Cooper had three more assists during it, none more impressive than the one that led to a Devan Cambridge alley-oop dunk in the closing seconds.

Cooper finished his debut with 26 points on 8-for-19 shooting (1-for-7 from 3, 9-for-10 from the free-throw line), nine assists, four rebounds and three steals. Auburn's offense looked more settled and under control with him running it.

"I felt completely different," said forward JT Thor, who had 15 points, nine rebounds, two assists, three steals and four blocks. "He sees the whole floor. He can make plays for himself and he can make plays for everybody else. So it was just exciting for him to be back.”

2. The young Tigers are still learning how to win

That was evident in the final minutes. They led by one after an Allen Flanigan 3-pointer with 2:17 remaining. From there, it was all Alabama (9-3, 4-0), which scored the final five points.

The second trey Cooper missed was deep and quick on a fastbreak where he may have had the opportunity to get the ball to the basket. Auburn still had 22 seconds to work with after Jaden Shackelford made it a four-point game, but it didn't get a shot off. Cooper committed a turnover at the top of the key with nine seconds remaining, and the Tigers ran out of time.

"I take that on my hat. Just being the point guard and having the coach be able to trust you to make the right plays, that’s on me," Cooper said. "I’ll learn. We’ll learn as a team, and I feel like we’ll definitely be better in the closing seconds."

3. Much more improvement is needed on defense

Color commentator Dan Dakich talked specifically about transition defense endlessly during the ESPN2 broadcast, and he wasn’t wrong. Alabama seemed to get a lot of its offense while Auburn was still trying to get back on defense or get its full-court press organized. The Crimson Tide finished with 14 fastbreak points.

On top of that, Alabama could hardly miss during a second half where it scored 57 points, making nearly 50% of its shots, shooting 4-of-11 from 3-point range and hitting 21 of 26 free throw attempts. They scored 16 second-chance points on 15 offensive rebounds overall.

Cooper settled down Auburn's offense, but work is still needed on the other end of the court.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.

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