AUBURN, Ala.- Walker Kessler did it again for No. 1 Auburn.
Kessler recorded his second triple-double in six weeks, and just the third in program history, as the Tigers bounced back from a loss with a 75-58 victory over Texas A&M.
Kessler’s final tally: 12 blocked shots, 12 points and 11 rebounds Saturday. He’s emerged as a star after playing a lesser role as a freshman for North Carolina.
“He’s one of the most dominant players in all of college basketball,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “How would you have ever thought that you could say that a year ago?”
The same could be said for his team.
The 7-foot-1 Tar Heels transfer rejected four of the Aggies’ first seven shots and swatted away bad feelings from earlier in the week. The Tigers (22-3, 11-1 Southeastern Conference) had their 19-game winning streak stopped by Arkansas in overtime.
And Kessler’s teammates were able to funnel the offensive players in his direction, with results that are becoming fairly predictable.
“They make it easy to block shots because they’re so good at defending the ball,” he said. “They know that I can block the shots so they corral the guard to me so I wouldn’t be able to do that kind of stuff without them.”
The Aggies (15-10, 4-8) dropped their eighth straight game and had one of their worst offensive performances of the season.
Allen Flanigan scored a season-high 16 points for Auburn while K.D. Johnson added 11 and Devan Cambridge 10. Jabari Smith had nine points and eight rebounds. Kessler scored 10 points in the second half.
Henry Coleman III had 10 points and 13 rebounds for Texas A&M, while Quenton Jackson scored 11. Tyrece Radford and Wade Taylor IV also had 10 points.
Aggies coach Buzz Williams called Auburn “a team that’s good enough to win the national championship.”
“I always want to give credit to the opponent,” Williams said. “I do think there were some shots, particularly in the first half, that maybe you would say, should we have shot it? We were a little bit out of sorts on three or four possessions.”
The Aggies had been 5-0 at Auburn Arena but trailed by as many as 25 in this one. But the 3-of-25 shooting from 3-point range could come back to haunt the Tigers.
“Our team played really hard today in front of a national television audience,” Pearl said. “They played really good defense. We didn’t make as many shots as we need to to get to the point where we feel like we’re special, but that’s what needs to be done.”
Auburn point guard Zep Jasper returned to the starting lineup after missing the last two games with a non-COVID-19 illness.
“Zep brings the fire on defense,” Flanigan said. “He’s going to get up in you and he’s going to play defense and move his feet. He’s going to lock down whoever he’s in front of on a given night.”
Both teams started off cold, with Auburn missing its first five shots and Texas A&M opening 0 for 7. Johnson’s fast-break layup at the buzzer gave Auburn a 33-18 halftime lead.
Texas A&M just managed to avoid its lowest scoring output of the season, 57 points against Butler on Nov. 23. Made just 7 of 39 shots in the first half (17.9%) and 19 of 70 (27.1% overall).
Auburn showed resilience in bouncing back from its first loss since November, an 80-76 overtime defeat.
HARSIN ON HAND
Auburn football coach Bryan Harsin mingled with students in the stands during the game. He had plenty to celebrate a day after President Jay Gogue announced the coach would be retained following an investigation into the program after a number of player and staff departures.
“I’m really happy for coach Harsin, his family, his staff,” Pearl said. “And I look forward to working with him and his whole team to keep making Auburn the everything school it is. It’s good to get that behind us.”
Texas A&M hosts Florida on Tuesday night.
Auburn hosts Vanderbilt on Wednesday night.