By the numbers, Auburn beat South Alabama in men's basketball by a point. The final score was 70-69, but even that razor thin margin doesn't tell you how good this game was. Because it's another number that was maybe more important:
That's how many people made their way in from the cold outside to witness this huge game between the upstart South Alabama Jaguars and a recent Final Four participant, the Auburn Tigers. And like the final score, that big attendance number doesn't tell you the story of what those fans brought. From the minute the doors opened, the atmosphere was electric. Local Auburn fans were excited to see their team up close, without a big road trip to the Plains; while South Alabama fans were just soaking in the moment of a big game in their house. As expected, there were plenty of houses divided. Plenty of people divided, too. Our friend Jennifer went to South, but she's bled Auburn orange for most of her life. Time to choose! The alumnus in her won the day, and her head did not need to explode.
I don't know if anyone thought this would be a walk in the park, but Bruce Pearl and the Auburn coaching staff knew they would have their hands full with the Jags. Auburn is a bit younger and missing a couple of key pieces from their Final Four run, while South Alabama is in the process of rebuilding. Not rebuilding in the sense of having to start over after a great season, but rebuilding the legacy and traditions that made South Alabama basketball one of the country's better programs in years past. In Richie Riley, the Jags have found a coach who understands where the program comes from and where it needs to be again. He talks about the indelible memories those teams of old created in our community, and he promises to bring back that magic.
He's off to a great start.
The Jags lost to Auburn in a game that could have gone either way. But the atmosphere in the building was the story of the night. From the opening tip-off, the crowd was loud and vocal. When good things happened for Auburn, we heard loud cheers from above -- because most Auburn fans were sitting in the upper bowl. When the Jags did something well, it felt like the whole building erupted. It was one of the very best college basketball atmospheres. Period.
A friend told me at halftime that someone had asked him if the atmosphere was always this good at the Mitchell Center. The short answer he gave was truthful: "No." But he added that all it takes to make this atmosphere great every game is for fans to keep coming back. Even smaller crowds light up the Mitchell Center during close games, and attendance will grow this year. Richie Riley and his team have certainly given this community a reason to come back and create that kind of environment every game. If you went to the game in orange on Tuesday, it's okay to come back and cheer for your hometown team wearing red. This season, the Jags men's basketball team is expected to be the best in the Sun Belt Conference. They're expected to win the Sun Belt Tournament in New Orleans next March, and then move on to the NCAA Tournament. This is an exciting time to get behind the Jags.
All South Alabama men's basketball games are available on 99.5 The Jag. Listen at 99.5 FM in Mobile, 96.1-HD2 across the Gulf Coast with an HD Radio, or use our FREE iHeartRadio app.