GREENVILLE, S.C. — Jabari Smith couldn’t wait for his first NCAA Tournament game so he could get back to having fun and helping second-seeded Auburn to its latest first-round victory.
Oh, and putting up a highlight-reel jam wasn’t bad, either.
Smith, the Southeastern Conference freshman of the year, had a sublime tournament debut with 20 points, 14 rebounds and a right-handed slam dunk that’ll be hard to miss among the highlights of the Tigers’ 80-61 victory over Jacksonville State in the Midwest Region on Friday.
The Tigers (28-5) will face 10th-seeded Miami on Sunday for a spot in the Sweet 16.
“We have No. 10 and you don’t,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said with a smile, referring to Smith.
Pearl’s got plenty of other standouts, too.
Walker Kessler, Smith’s 7-foot-1 partner in the paint, finished a block shy of a triple-double with 13 points, 10 rebounds and nine blocks. K.D. Johnson broke out of a shooting slump with 10 points and a couple of 3s as Auburn took control late in the first half.
Still, it’s hard to get past Smith, the 6-10 forward who hit four 3s to help Auburn win its 10th straight tournament-opening game.
“I was ready to play since the buzzer sounded in Tampa,” he said, referring to the SEC regular-season champs’ first-round loss to Texas A&M in the conference tournament.
Pearl told his players to get back to who they are. “You’re already champions, you’re SEC champions,” he said. “Now relax, have some fun.”
Auburn started having lots of fun late in the opening half when it went on a 17-3 run to take a 39-27 lead against 15th-seeded Jacksonville State (21-11).
Auburn was on target from the outside. K.D. Johnson ended his shooting slump – he was 0-14 in the SEC quarterfinal loss to Texas A&M – and had 10 points and a couple of 3s during the decisive spurt.
“I just think we gave them too many open shots,” Jacksonville State’s Jalen Gibbs said. “Once the run got started, it was hard to stop.”
Gibbs, Division I’s fifth-leading 3-point shooter coming in, hit his third long-range shot of the half to put the Gamecocks up 24-22 about six minutes before the break. That’s when the Tigers got going.
Jaylin Williams had two 3-pointers and Johnson added another as Auburn moved in front. Johnson followed with a sweet inside pass to Kessler, who jammed it home to the cheers of the pro-Auburn crowd.
Kessler followed with a three-point play and Johnson capped it with a second 3 for a 39-27 lead. He ran downcourt screaming, jumping and pointing toward his bench after hitting the shot.
Jacksonville State cut a 24-point deficit in half at 67-55 with less than seven minutes left but got no closer.
The fun for Auburn culminated on Smith’s power drive starting at the 3-point line and ending with his big dunk over the Gamecocks’ 6-10 forward Brandon Huffman.
“I didn’t know he was going to do that,” Johnson said. “He never did that in practice. That was the first time he showed me he can get that high, so that was crazy.”
Smith just smiled at Johnson’s comments. “I’m ready for the next one,” Smith said.
Kessler’s pursuit of the NCAA Tournament’s 10th triple-double may have been hurt when he banged into teammate Jaylin Williams’ teeth in the second half and missed several minutes as trainers treated a cut on his elbow.
Williams got the worst of it, though, with two chipped teeth. Pearl said Williams’ will be evaluated for a concussion and is unsure of his status for Sunday. Williams made all three of his shots for eight points in seven minutes.
Smith finished with his sixth double-double of the season while the Tigers added to their first-round success. Only Kansas, with 14 straight opening wins, and Gonzaga, with 13, are ahead of Auburn.
Gibbs hit four 3s and led the Gamecocks with 20 points.
Jacksonville State: The Gamecocks took the ASUN’s automatic bid despite losing the league tournament final to Bellarmine, which is transitioning to Division I and ineligible for the tournament. Their attitude was to make the most of the opportunity and for much of the opening half they did. The team has eight upperclassmen, and most will be back next season.
Auburn: The Tigers reached the Final Four in their previous NCAA trip three years ago before a drama-filled defeat to Virginia in the semifinals. Auburn played like it expects to be playing on the final weekend. Don’t bet against it with the Smith and Kessler leading the way inside and Williams and Johnson making outside shots.
Pearl and Jacksonville State coach Ray Harper go back, way back. The two were rival coaches in Division II, Pearl leading Southern Indiana and Harper at Kentucky Wesleyan. The schools were about 40 miles apart and both eventually won national titles under Pearl and Harper.
“I’m sure the people back in Evansville, Indiana, and Owensboro, Kentucky, were tuned into that game, as they should,” Pearl joked.
“I have so much respect for Coach Harper. I’m very satisfied with the way we played,” Pearl said.
Auburn looks to reach the Sweet 16.