No. 9 Auburn, with shot-blocker Walker Kessler, faces South Carolina

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No. 9 Auburn will travel to Columbia, S.C., to face the South Carolina Gamecocks on Tuesday night, when the surging Tigers will look for continued dominance by big man Walker Kessler.

A transfer from North Carolina, Kessler has been swatting away shots at a record pace for Auburn (12-1, 1-0 SEC), which opened conference action Wednesday with a 70-55 home victory over then-No. 16 LSU.

The dominating Kessler played an enormous role in the game.

He crafted a triple-double, including a career-high 11 blocks, as Auburn held the visiting Tigers to 28.6 percent shooting from the field and 20.7 percent from long range.

The Newnan, Ga., native led his team with 16 points and 10 rebounds as Auburn rolled to its ninth straight victory.

“Our defense was outstanding,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “It starts and ends with Walker Kessler, his ability to protect the rim. Walker cleans everything up.

“If there’s a better defender, rim protector and shot blocker in the country, I haven’t seen him.”

Kyle Davis has held Auburn’s shot-blocking record for nearly two decades, since blocking 126 in the 2002-03 season, but Kessler is a serious contender to shatter the mark. He has 55 blocks in 13 games this season, averaging 4.2 per contest.

The Tigers lead the nation in shot-blocking, recording 8.2 blocks per game — 1.4 more than any other team.

Kessler said positioning and timing are the major reasons he is able to send so many attempts back from whence they came.

“I have a pretty good timing going for blocks, knowing when and where to attack it,” said Kessler, who produced Auburn’s first triple-double since Kenny Gabriel on Jan. 2, 2012, against Bethune-Cookman.

Added Pearl, “Walker lands well, and he is not afraid to get up in the air and put himself in a compromising position. That is demonstrative of his toughness.”

The Gamecocks (9-3) have had time off to prepare for their conference opener — more than they wanted.

Their meeting last Wednesday against in-state opponent South Carolina State was postponed due to health and safety protocol, with no makeup date yet announced.

Coach Frank Martin’s team made its last appearance in a matinee rout of Army on Dec. 22, blowing away the Black Knights 105-75 behind strong shooting by the Carters — a game-high 22 points from Devin and 20 from Chico — who made a combined 15 of 26 shots from the field.

For the game, South Carolina connected on 41 of 70 field-goal attempts — a blistering 58.6 percent — and made eight of its 15 treys (53.3 percent).

Martin said having the whole team together is essential.

“We’ve got a good basketball team,” he said. “Take into consideration (Keyshawn) Bryant misses five games. Jermaine Couisnard has basically practiced for maybe 10 days.

“Those are our two most experienced players, and both are career double-figure scorers.”

–Field Level Media

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