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A matchup of league leaders Baylor (Big 12) and streaking Alabama (Southeastern Conference) might have been the more headline-grabbing matchup, but Auburn vs. the Bears in Saturday's SEC/Big 12 Challenge in Waco, Texas, has its appeal as well.
The No. 2 Bears (15-0, 8-0 Big 12) need just two more wins to match the program's best start to a season in well over a century while the Tigers (10-7, 4-5 SEC) will be going for their fifth victory in seven games since freshman Sharife Cooper gained eligibility.
The Bears are sixth in the nation in offense in averaging 87.5 points a game and the Tigers have upped their per-game average to 86.8 with Cooper running things at point guard. Just how valuable he is to Auburn's fortunes was made clear in the Tigers' 88-82 win over No. 12 Missouri earlier this week.
When Cooper went to the bench with three fouls late in the first half, Auburn was leading. When he came back with just over 17 minutes left in the game, Auburn was losing, outscored 21-9 in his absence.
"We're a lot better with Sharife Cooper on the floor," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. "When he got in foul trouble, we really bogged down."
Cooper matched his season high with 28 points to go with eight rebounds and seven assists in 28 minutes.
The Tigers also demonstrated the kind play off the bench they likely will need to have a shot against the Bears, outscoring Mizzou backups 34-22.
"I'm happy for the bench," Pearl said. "They did a great job tonight. We outscored them, outplayed them off the bench, which is terrific."
Baylor is coming off a 107-59 rout of Kansas State that leaves the Bears just two wins short of their best start in school history. The team opened its 2011-12 season 17-0. The school-record winning streak is 23 games, set last season.
"Some nights, things are clicking for us. And tonight, they were clicking for us," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "We thought it was really important for us to get off to a quick start. You can't guarantee you're going to shoot 61 percent from 3 and 17-of-28 every night, but when it happens, it's sure fun to watch."
Junior Davion Mitchell led the scoring with a career-high 31 points. He is averaging 12.9 points a game for the season behind Jared Butler (16.8) and MaCio Teague (14.9).
"That's the great thing about this team is each and every night someone can get hot," Drew said. "This team really allows when someone gets hot to find him and keep him hot, rather than try to get their own. Davion's worked so hard since he got here to work on his shooting and being a more consistent shooter. I think he showed that."
Both teams get back into conference play following this weekend, Baylor visits No. 5 Texas on Tuesday and Auburn hosts Georgia the same night.
--Field Level Media