ATHENS — Bruce Pearl tried as hard as he could to be gracious and complimentary of Georgia following Auburn’s win Wednesday night at Stegeman Coliseum. In fact, he did say some genuinely nice things about the Bulldogs after his team’s hard-fought 78-75 victory.
In the end, though, he couldn’t resist. He gloated. He bragged. It’s who he is. It’s what he does.
“This is our fourth straight win over Georgia and that hasn’t happened since 1979,” said Pearl, in his fifth season with the Tigers. “That’s a significant accomplishment for our program. This is a really good program and obviously the future’s bright, but it’s a real sign that we’re building something at Auburn. … So it was a great win for Auburn.”
It was hard to blame Pearl for being proud. On the surface, a win over a Georgia team with a 1-13 SEC record shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But Auburn desperately needed the dramatic victory that it didn’t secure until the final seconds, and that goes well beyond SEC and NCAA tournament implications.
Pearl knew the Tigers needed to win for recruiting purposes. While Georgia is in a transition period under Tom Crean, the first-year coach already has delivered a message that he’s serious about turning things around, securing a commitment from the No. 1-ranked player in America in Atlanta’s Anthony Edwards and two other So it wasn’t lost on Pearl that the best players on his team — and the ones that made the key plays made in the deciding moments — are all from Georgia.
Chuma Okeke, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward out of Atlanta’s Westlake High, made the winning 3-point basket. Guard Jared Harper, a junior from Mableton, led the Tigers with 22 points. Bryce Brown, a senior guard from Stone Mountain, is Auburn’s leading scorer, though he had only 9 on the night. Anfernee McLemore, a junior from Southwest Georgia, had a key block and steal down the stretch.
“It was a great win for our program,” Pearl said. “Tom has breathed life into his program, and energy. He just happens to be coming into the league at a time when the league is maybe the best it’s ever been.”
Crean was asked if he now fully appreciated the significance of the Auburn rivalry after losing to the Tigers twice and seeing so many Georgia players have such an impact on the outcomes.
“I don’t know. (Georgia has) a rivalry with a lot of people,” Crean said. “(Pearl) has done a really good job of recruiting Atlanta, recruiting Georgia. So he’s done a very good job. Other than that I don’t have much of an opinion on that. I’m sure I’ll gain one over a period of time when I see more of these games. There’s a lot of hard games in this league. In fact, every one of them.”
Pearl downplayed his head-to-head competition with Georgia for Atlanta recruits. According to him, the Bulldogs vigorously pursued only Okeke but not the others. But within his comments there also seemed to he a thinly-veiled inference that Auburn is good at identifying overlooked talent.
“Georgia got some players that were ranked ahead of my Georgia guys,” Pearl said. “So it means something to (Auburn’s Georgians). It does. I guarantee you, those kids love the state of Georgia. They’re from Georgia, you know. But Auburn gave them an opportunity, and I think these kids have really taken advantage of the opportunity they’ve had. … We clearly have lucked out with some of these kids.”
Pearl knows how important Atlanta is to Auburn’s success. He also recruited the area to great effect at Tennessee before NCAA violations resulted in his dismissal and three-year show-cause restriction in 2011.
Pearl tipped his cap to Crean for his recruiting prowess and recognizes that Georgia will now be a force to contend with in Atlanta.
“Tom has a different level of expectation for his programs; he has a championship expectation for his programs,” Pearl said. “So he’s got champagne taste, so he’s going to recruit champagne-type players. That means he’s going to recruit higher-ranked players and tougher players to get. And he’s got a good team now. They’ve got really, really good pieces.”
Just not as good as Pearl’s just yet. Crean’s seeking to change that, and the Auburn coach knows it.
“This is a great rivalry,” Pearl said. “I mean, I don’t know if you live in the area but I live over in the Auburn area and this game matters. A lot of respect between the two programs, but the game matters. It’s pretty close to the Alabama series, it’s huge for us in recruiting, because there are so many great players in Atlanta and it’s an hour and 15 minutes from the Auburn campus.”
Well, actually closer to two hours unless one is driving 100 miles per hour. But when it comes to recruiting Atlanta, Pearl is going to exaggerate every advantage he can find.