Walker Kessler’s performance Wednesday night was as large as the man himself.
The 7-foot-1 pivot and his teammates will be back in action Saturday afternoon when the No. 21 Auburn Tigers play Yale in a nonconference matchup in Auburn, Ala.
If Wednesday is any indication, Kessler will likely play another crucial role for the Tigers (6-1).
In the Southeastern Conference school’s resounding 85-68 win over visiting UCF, Kessler sparked the play throughout — owning the painted lane, roaming over to help out on defense and swatting away or changing attempted shots by the Knights.
In all, the Atlanta native — the nephew of the late University of Georgia All-American Alec Kessler — registered 17 points, a career-best 14 rebounds, six blocks and two steals.
The performance by the North Carolina transfer was not a surprise to multi-talented 6-foot-10 leading scorer Jabari Smith, who netted 20 points.
“He’s just being Walker,” said Smith, who contributed seven rebounds, four assists and three steals. “This really doesn’t surprise me. It’s just really what we expect of him.”
The Tigers held just a 39-36 edge after 20 minutes of play after UCF’s 1-2-2 press gave them fits and forced turnovers that transitioned into easy buckets.
At the break, coach Bruce Pearl brought some emotion to his players, whose only setback so far has been a double-overtime loss to UConn in last week’s Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
“Coach’s biggest point was they were playing harder than us, playing with more energy than us,” Smith said. “He came into the locker room fired up. That fired us up, and I feel like we came out in the second half with a lot more energy.”
The Tigers responded by outscoring the Knights 46-32 and holding them to 8-for-29 (35.6 percent) field-goal shooting in the second half.
Yale (5-4) will enter the contest having won two of its last three.
Sandwiched around an 85-81 loss to Stony Brook on Sunday was a 69-56 win over Milwaukee last Wednesday in a tournament in Fort Myers, Fla., and an 82-72 home triumph over Lehigh on Wednesday.
In a 57-point second half against the Patriot League opposition, the Bulldogs turned in a hot-shooting 20-minute spell to defeat Lehigh.
During its half of outscoring the Mountain Hawks by 18 points, Yale shot a sizzling 54.6 percent and popped 7 of 11 3-pointers.
They also were successful in being strong on the other end of the court: The Bulldogs limited the visitors to 2-for-13 shooting from distance.
“We got some energy from what we were doing defensively,” Yale coach James Jones said. “Offensively, we got some matchups that were favorable to us.”
Azar Swain helped lead the way by scoring a game-high 23 points — the fifth time in his last six games he has hit 20.
“It was a really good team effort in the second half,” said Swain, who tops the squad in scoring with 18.9 points per game.
Matthue Cotton (11.8) and Jalen Gabbidon (11.7) also average in double figures, with Gabbidon leading in rebounds (5.6).
–Field Level Media