AJ Lawson talks injury, Auburn loss and future
A.J. Lawson turned and winced with the whistle. His first big dent in his return game from injury felt like a crucial moment.
South Carolina’s chance to reach the semifinals of the SEC Tournament for the first time in 16 years was on the brink of crunch time when Lawson, USC’s star freshman guard, challenged too hard on a 3-point attempt by Auburn’s Jared Harper. A three-shot foul was awarded to the Tigers as Lawson headed to the bench.
USC spent a good chunk of its conference season short-handed, so it was only fitting that the Gamecocks essentially stayed that way in the postseason. Lawson, one of the best rookies in the league, wasn’t his usual self after a three-game absence for an ankle injury. Fourth-seeded Carolina basically had to battle No. 5 Auburn with a familiar lineup of seven scholarship players.
The fight was there, the result wasn’t. Clutch-shooting Auburn pulled through with a 73-64 win on Friday at Bridgestone Arena. The Tigers (24-9) advance to face 8-seed Florida in a Saturday semifinal.
South Carolina dropped to 16-16 and now awaits its NIT fate.
“We didn’t score enough,” said Carolina coach Frank Martin. “You’re not going to beat Auburn 52-50. Not going to happen. You gotta score and we didn’t score.”
After Harper capitalized with two free throws following the Lawson foul, Auburn stretched its lead to five with 9:23 left. It was whittled down to one over a minute later before the Tigers used consecutive 3s from Danjel Purifoy and Horace Spencer to begin their spacing.
The Tigers outscored the Gamecocks, 18-10, over the final 8:13.
Auburn finished 13 of 34 from beyond the arc. AU’s backcourt duo of Harper and Bryce Brown combined for 46 points.
Chris Silva, in perhaps his final game for USC, had 27 points and 11 rebounds. Lawson failed to score in 13 minutes.
“Little bit of both,” Lawson said when asked if rust or the injury had a better impact on his performance.
Martin later revealed that Lawson rolled his right ankle — he sprained his left ankle in a loss to Alabama on Feb. 26 — during Wednesday’s practice.
Five Gamecocks logged at least 34 minutes.
“We just played one of the top 15 teams in the country without our leading scoring guard,” Martin said of Lawson. “The guard that leads us in scoring played limited (minutes). We’re right there. We just didn’t score enough.”
Carolina scored 80 in a win over Auburn in January. That effort included a dominant Silva (32 points, 14 rebounds) against an Tiger frontline that was missing Austin Wiley. The 6-foot-10 Wiley (leg injury) played just three minutes Friday, allowing Silva to post big numbers.
But this time, USC’s senior lacked the necessary support.
Hassani Gravett and Tre Campbell went a combined 5 of 22 from the field.
“Honestly,” Gravett said, “I blame myself. I didn’t hit enough shots to help my team win. At the end of the day, they were hitting their shots and when I was open, I wasn’t able to buy a bucket.”
Auburn made five of its final seven field goals. South Carolina went two for its last eight.
“They had five guys play very heavy minutes,” said Tigers coach Bruce Pearl. “It was a factor at the end of the game.”
The Gamecocks led for more than 15 minutes in the first half, but were tied at the break as Auburn scored 34 of its first 36 points off 3s and 10 Carolina turnovers.
No. 22 AUBURN 73, SOUTH CAROLINA 64
McLemore 0-3 0-0 0, Okeke 1-3 2-2 4, Harper 6-13 12-14 27, Brown 7-16 0-1 19, Dunbar 0-1 0-0 0, Spencer 2-3 0-0 5, Purifoy 2-2 0-0 6, Wiley 1-1 0-0 2, McCormick 0-0 0-0 0, Doughty 2-5 4-4 10. Totals 21-47 18-21 73.
SOUTH CAROLINA (16-16)
Silva 9-12 5-11 27, Haase 5-7 0-0 12, Bryant 2-4 2-2 6, Campbell 3-10 3-3 12, Gravett 2-12 0-0 5, Frink 0-0 0-0 0, Kotsar 0-1 2-2 2, Lawson 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-47 12-18 64.
Halftime: 36-36. 3-Point Goals: Auburn 13-34 (Brown 5-14, Harper 3-8, Purifoy 2-2, Doughty 2-3, Spencer 1-1, Dunbar 0-1, Okeke 0-2, McLemore 0-3), South Carolina 10-26 (Silva 4-4, Campbell 3-8, Haase 2-4, Gravett 1-8, Lawson 0-1, Bryant 0-1). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: Auburn 26 (Harper 6), South Carolina 30 (Silva 11). Assists: Auburn 11 (Harper 6), South Carolina 12 (Campbell 5). Total Fouls: Auburn 19, South Carolina 17.