Auburn basketball: No more ‘holding back’ Chuma Okeke after freshman’s career night vs. Alabama

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn basketball fans finally got to see the full version of Chuma Okeke on Wednesday night.

With center Anfernee McLemore out for the season and No. 2 scorer Mustapha Heron battling a stomach virus, Bruce Pearl pulled his hands back and let his 6-foot-8 freshman phenom from Atlanta go.

“I’ve been telling you the only thing that is holding Chuma Okeke back is me,” Pearl said. “He can play.”

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In a critical 90-71 win over Alabama, Okeke set or tied his career high in minutes played (34), points (16), rebounds (10), blocks (2) and steals (2).

During a 7-minute stretch in the second half, Okeke scored 13 points — including a transition 3-pointer and a pair of and-1 plays. Auburn went from up 2 points to leading by a dozen during that takeover period for the versatile forward.

“The coaches kept saying to get him the ball, and we were waiting to see the matchups,” Pearl said. “We were able to decide looking at who they had guys guarding, and we went at certain people. Chuma could do it at the perimeter. He could do it off the pinch post, he did it off the bounce. He was really good in the back, breaking pressure.”

Auburn basketball-Auburn Tigers-Auburn-Alabama-Chuma Okeke
Auburn forward Chuma Okeke had a pair of and-1s in the second half against Alabama. (Dakota Sumpter/Auburn Athletics)

Auburn needed someone to replace the post production of McLemore, who suffered a severe lower-leg injury in a loss to South Carolina last Saturday. Okeke exceeded it.

He doubled McLemore’s averages of 7 points and 5 rebounds per game. Okeke’s 10 rebounds were a game-high.

“One of our leading scorers was down, Mustapha,” Okeke said. “One of our leading rebounders was down, Anfernee. I had to come in this game with an aggressive mindset and crash the boards a lot, and I had to do what I had to do to help my team win.”

That’s been the attitude of Okeke, a former 4-star signee from one of basketball’s top recruiting hotbeds. But with Auburn returning McLemore and adding Presbyterian transfer Desean Murray into the mix, the Tigers didn’t need Okeke to be a star right away.

“I think I’m just adjustable,” Okeke said. “Whatever [Pearl] needs me to do, I do it. I don’t have a problem doing anything.”

That’s not an easy mindset for most freshmen, especially ones who teammates — such as Auburn point guard Jared Harper — said were “gypped for McDonalds All-American” spots.

“The biggest compliment I could pay Chuma is this: he’s good enough and talented enough to start on most teams,” Pearl said. “You wouldn’t even guess it or know it, but he’s here to help and get better. Because so many freshmen come in and they want balloons, they want streamers, they want shots — ‘it’s my turn.’ Him, no.”

Okeke got plenty of turns, though, against Alabama. The 6-foot-8 forward moved like a wing on drives and finished at the rim, including a tomahawk dunk in the second half.

“I just think it is playing with confidence,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said of Okeke’s performance. “It is also being ready to play no matter who is in uniform.”

Okeke also showcased his range with a pair of 3-pointers. One of them came on an excellent pick-and-pop move with Harper in the second half.

“When Chuma is playing like that, we are very hard to beat,” Harper said. “He is definitely a matchup problem at the 4, and if he even plays the 5. If Chuma and I are in a pick and roll, they’re going to have to choose to stay, guard me or guard him.”

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It was a lethal combination Wednesday night. Harper assisted on 4 of Okeke’s 6 made shots. He finished with 6 assists.

As one of Auburn’s few healthy post players, Okeke was thrown into a difficult situation against Alabama. He had to play 13.5 more minutes than his season average. He had to play center after spending most of his season backing up Desean Murray at power forward.

Through all of it, though, the future of Auburn basketball rolled with the punches and delivered a flurry in the Tigers’ beatdown of Alabama. Expect more of the same as Auburn closes in on an SEC title.

“He’s just terrific,” Pearl said. “He asked me what I wanted him to do, and he’s ready to step up now.”

The post Auburn basketball: No more ‘holding back’ Chuma Okeke after freshman’s career night vs. Alabama appeared first on SEC Country.

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