ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Auburn and Georgia finally have help from their top recruits as the teams try to escape the bottom of the Southeastern Conference standings.
Freshman guards Sharife Cooper of Auburn and K.D. Johnson of Georgia proved after being cleared to play by the NCAA they can immediately lead their teams in scoring.
Cooper, who boasts dynamic scoring and playmaking skills, gives the Tigers reason to dream big for the 2021-22 season, when they again will be eligible for the postseason.
Johnson’s talents as a scorer and defender may not be enough to make up for the shortcomings of his Bulldogs’ teammates.
Each guard played lead roles on Wednesday night, when Auburn overwhelmed Georgia 95-77.
Playing in only his second game, Cooper had game-high totals of 28 points and 12 assists.
“Sharife Cooper was the best player on the floor,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. No dissenting opinion was offered, even after five of Cooper’s teammates also scored in double figures.
Auburn Devan Cambridge, who scored 14 points, said Cooper makes “a major difference” in the Tigers’ attack.
“That’s what we’ve been waiting for is a true point guard,” Cambridge said. “He’s very unselfish. … He makes me look 10 times better, and he’s going to find everybody.”
Cooper scored 26 points in his debut, a 94-90 loss to Alabama, on Saturday.
Auburn (7-6, 1-4 SEC) renewed confidence as it prepares for Saturday’s visit from Kentucky. The Tigers have a self-imposed postseason ban for this season following a bribery scheme involving former assistant coach Chuck Person.
Cooper, a five-star recruit from Powder Springs, Georgia, is the centerpiece of Pearl’s rebuilding effort. The point guard scored or assisted on 20 of Auburn’s last 24 points.
Despite the strong finish, Cooper said he is still working his way into playing shape.
“Fatigue was a big factor in the first game,” he said. “I was tired and winded. I was winded today, too. I am still trying to get back in the flow of things.”
Making his debut after he was cleared to play on Monday, Johnson had 21 points, seven rebounds and four steals. He did not start the game, but he was on the court to open the second half.
Asked what he learned from Johnson’s first half, Georgia coach Tom Crean said: “That we missed him for 10 games.”
“K.D. is really good,” said Georgia point guard Sahvir Wheeler. “Obviously, you have seen his impact.”
Georgia (7-4, 0-4 SEC) has opened its conference schedule with four consecutive losses, including the last two by a combined 48 points. The Bulldogs are 7-33 in SEC games in three seasons under Crean, including a 5-13 SEC mark last season with No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Anthony Edwards.
Georgia never led Auburn. The few highlights were provided by Johnson, who said he was “pretty amped up” before the game. He had a steal and basket to close the first half and another steal, followed by a jam, in the second half.
The Bulldogs struggled with transition defense and allowed too many uncontested dunks.
Crean said he will “make some tough choices” with his lineup. Johnson appears certain to be included in any combination.
“It’s got to get better in a hurry, because people are coming at us and we’re back on our heels,” Crean said.
Cooper and Johnson add depth to the SEC’s freshman class.
Louisiana State freshman Cameron Thomas leads the league with 21.8 points per game. Moses Moody of Arkansas is eighth at 16.8. Kentucky’s Brandon Boston is averaging 12.1 points.
Johnson, from Southwest DeKalb High School, and Cooper are from the Atlanta area but were not prep rivals.
“We played in a celebrity game in the summer, but we have never gotten a chance to play each other in a real game,” Johnson said. “I’ve met him a few times and we’re cool off the court.”
The two have more in common than their Atlanta-area background. Just as Johnson must help fill the void left by Edwards, Auburn had Isaac Okoro selected No. 5 overall in the draft by Cleveland.
Cooper couldn’t practice with the Tigers while awaiting NCAA clearance, making his quick adjustment to games even more impressive.
“We have six guys in double figures because he just shares it,” Pearl said. “Whether you’re at the rim or at the perimeter, he is hard to guard and it makes what we do harder to guard.”
AP Sports Writer John Zenor contributed to this report.
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