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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Mustapha Heron returned from a one-game absence and scored 16 points to help lead Auburn to a 76-70 victory over Middle Tennessee State at the BHM JAM at Legacy Arena on Saturday.
The sophomore guard, who had been out since Dec. 6 due to back spasms, was 5-of-7 shooting from the field and also pulled down six rebounds in the victory.
"I just tried to play it one possession at a time. I tried not to force too much," Heron said. "I felt good. A little sick right now, but it felt good."
The performance helped Auburn secure its ninth win in 10 games to open the season; the program's best start since the 1999-2000 season that ended with a No. 24 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll and an NCAA Tournament berth.
The Tigers led by double digits for much of the contest mostly thanks to a 14-2 run during the middle portion of the first half. True freshman power forward Chuma Okeke was the spark during that run and scored seven straight off the bench.
The lead was no less than 12 points until less than seven minutes remained, when a 20-5 Blue Raider run reduced the deficit from 21 points to eight.
That run began with the ejection of reserve Tigers forward Malik Dunbar, who committed a personal foul and a pair of technical fouls, with 13:32 to play. Middle Tennessee State senior Giddy Potts, the team's leading scorer with 19 points, scored the first four points during that stretch from the line before fouling out with a little more than eight minutes remaining.
But the Blue Raiders continued to chip away without him. A 3-pointer by Antwain Johnson with 21 seconds to go made it a five-point game, but Auburn point guard Jared Harper made 1 of 2 free throws and Johnson missed the 3 that would have made it a one-score game with 10 seconds remaining.
"Which team is it?" Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. "Is it the team that played for the first 24 minutes or so, or is it the team that hung on and found away win? Probably a little bit of both."
Heron was joined by four of his Auburn teammates in double digits — Harper also had 16, Okeke had 14 and backup center Horace Spencer had a season-high 11 off the bench to go along with a team-high seven rebounds.
Middle Tennessee State: The Blue Raiders couldn't make it three wins in a row against SEC opponents, following wins over Vanderbilt and Ole Miss.
Auburn: The Tigers extended their winning streak to seven games despite still being without stars Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley, who are being held out due to potential eligibility concerns amidst an FBI investigation,
After Middle Tennessee State cut Auburn's lead to 12 points with 9:04 left to play, Harper hit a 3 then drew Potts' fifth foul. The Blue Raiders continued to hang around, but were never able to fully overcome the loss one of their senior leader.
STAT OF THE NIGHT
Turnovers. Middle Tennessee State came into Saturday's game averaging 12.1 per game and committed 24 against Auburn. The Tigers turned those giveaways into 20 points.
One of the game's most crucial matchups came at power forward, where Middle Tennessee State's leading scorer Nick King (24.3 points per game) was matched up with Auburn's Okeke and Desean Murray. King scored just 12 points on 4 of 13 shooting and committed seven turnovers, while Okeke and Murray combined for 16 points on 7 of 11 shooting from the field.
Middle Tennessee State will stay on the road and take on Princeton on Friday.
Auburn will try to extend its win streak when it hits the road to face Murray State in Murray, Ky., on Tuesday.
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