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SIOUX FALLS, SD - NOVEMBER 07 - Auburn's Aden Holloway (1), Auburn’s Chad Baker-Mazara (10), Auburn's K.D. Johnson (0) during the game between the Auburn Tigers and the #20 Baylor Bears at Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, SD on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. Photo by Steven Leonard/Auburn Tigers

Auburn Falls to No. 20 Baylor in Heartbreaking Season Opener

SIOUX FALLS, S.D (EETV) -- November 7th marked the beginning of the Auburn men's basketball season and it started with a marquee matchup, as Bruce Pearl and his men traveled to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to face No. 20 player.

Although Au burn held a commanding 43-34 lead at the half, Baylor clawed their way back into the game, starting out hot in the second half and finishing the game on a 16-5 run to get the victory 88-82.

The big storyline of the game was a battle of the freshmen. Auburn landed Aden Holloway over the summer, last year's No. 26 player in the ESPN 100 who is known for his three-point shooting prowess. On the other side of the court, Baylor also landed two huge recruits over the summer: Ja'Kobe Walter and RayJ Dennis. The three freshmen would lead their respective teams in points, as Holloway recorded 19 points for the Tigers whilst Walter dropped a game-high 28 points for the Bears followed by Dennis' 15 points.

Another storyline going into this game was health concerns around the Tigers. Auburn's star center and Naismith Trophy watch list player Johni Broome pinched his rotator cuff in their exhibition against AU-Montgomery last week and Aden Holloway tweaked his ankle in a closed-door exhibition against Furman the week before, yet both suited up for the season debut tonight.

Although the excitement to see Holloway's debut was prominent in both the broadcast and the Sioux Falls crowd, head coach Bruce Pearl chose to start a more experienced lineup consisting of Tre Donaldson, Denver Jones, Chris Moore, Jaylin Williams, and Johni Broome. Starting point guard Tre Donaldson recorded the Tiger's first points of the season with a drive to the hole and a right-hand layup finish. With 16:31 left, the long-awaited debut of Aden Holloway came to a close, as the freshman checked in and hit a three-pointer just over a minute later to put Auburn ahead 9-7.

Coach Pearl was 27-1 in season-opener games in his career, yet Baylor proved to be his biggest test yet. The game remained tight at the beginning of the game with neither team able to gain a sizable lead. With 15:10 left in the first half, JUCO transfer Chad Baker-Mazara was called for a flagrant-one foul, sparking a five-point possession for the Bears which gave them a 12-9 lead. However, Auburn answered with a highlight lob from Aden Holloway to a running Dylan Cardwell which cut the lead to one.

Transfer play was crucial for Auburn against AU-Montgomery last week, and it continued to remain crucial tonight. Denver Jones, the Tiger's leading scorer against the Warhawks last week with 18 points, contributed 13 points tonight and continued his efficiency from three-point land, going three-for-five. Chad Baker-Mazara added seven more to Auburn's total, yet his presence was felt beyond the stat sheet in tonight's game. With 7:58 left in the first half, Baker-Mazara converted an and-one to tie the game at 24. After his free throw, Baker-Mazara stole the ball on the other end, finished a fast-break layup, and then recorded another steal on the next possession, acting as the spark plug for Auburn's big 22-10 run to end the first half. The Tigers held a 43-34 lead going into halftime.

However, Baylor came out of halftime and capitalized on Auburn's lackadaisical play, going on a 6-0 run in the first 30 seconds in the second half. Baylor started the second half on a 10-2 run to bring the lead to one.

Less than three minutes into the second half, Baylor's Ja'Kobe Walter recorded his 24th point, setting the Baylor school record for the most points ever recorded by a player in their freshman debut.

Although Baylor brought the game within one early, Auburn responded and after 10 minutes of second-half play, Auburn led 66-60.

However, in typical bear fashion, Baylor clawed their way back into the game. With three minutes left in the game, RayJ Dennis was left open after an Auburn defensive miscommunication, and he tied the game at 77. Momentum was starting to shift in Sioux Falls, and Baylor big Yves Missi capitalized on this momentum by throwing down a huge dunk over Johni Broome, which gave the Bears their first lead since there was 7:58 left in the first half. Following this dunk, Missi blocked a Denver Jones layup attempt and then came back down the floor to connect on two free throws, giving Baylor an 81-77 lead.

Foul trouble became a huge problem for the Tigers down the stretch. After the game, Coach Pearl told media, "We fouled 32 times and had guys in foul trouble all game long. I know in the NCAA Tournament, it's a high-level game, and it was too much of a foul fest." He added, "It's a big game. Just didn't expect Baylor to go to the foul line 32 times."

With 47.7 seconds left, Baylor was up 83-79 and amidst an 11-2 run when Chris Moore pinned a shot by RayJ Dennis on the backboard, but the refs made a controversial goaltending call. A referee timeout was called to review the play and the block by Chris Moore is determined clean, but follow-up contact by Johni Broome was what remained controversial. However, the officials ruled that the shot was not a goaltending, and Auburn now had the ball with 47 seconds left and only down four.

However, this call did not impact the Baylor Bears, as their defense deterred an Aden Holloway three-point shot and got under the skin of Broome, giving him his fifth foul and knocking him out of the game, as Baylor went on to win 88-82.

Baylor's Ja'Kobe Walter finishes with 28 points, 4-for-7 from three, and a perfect 10-10 from the line, solidifying his standing as one of the best freshmen in the country and a future NBA lottery pick.

Although the Tigers are heading back to Neville Arena 0-1, there were some bright spots. With the addition of Aden Holloway into the lineup and Johni Broome on the floor, Auburn's three-point shooting increased drastically. The Tigers shot 5-for-25 from three against AU-Montgomery last week, and tonight, they connected on 9-of-19 three-pointers. Bruce Pearl was not surprised by his team's improvement postgame, however, saying "Obviously we can shoot the ball."

Auburn's depth was also on full display tonight, as a Chaney Johnson putback layup halfway through the second half marked the Tiger's tenth player to score that night. Because of this, Auburn's bench outscored Baylor's 39-25. Pearl vocalized his faith in his guys after the game, stating, "We held our own," yet added that, "We did not do what we came here to do," and "We're a better team than how we played tonight."

The Tigers will face Southeastern Louisiana this Friday at Neville Arena in their season home opener. That game is at 7 p.m. CT on SEC Network+.