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Auburn enters sold-out Rocket City Classic with momentum

HUNTSVILLE – The Auburn men’s basketball team returns to the Von Braun Center to play in Huntsville for the first time in 20 seasons Wednesday, and a neutral court sellout crowd awaits a Tigers team coming off an impressive blowout of traditional hoops blue blood Indiana.

The Tigers washed away any traces of a road loss at Appalachian State with a dominant performance in a neutral site game Saturday against the Hoosiers. Auburn trailed by 12 points early but won going away 104-76 in the Holiday Hoopsgiving at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl has described the way the Tigers played — they committed just three turnovers — as “beautiful” and “pretty” in what he called an NCAA Tournament-like atmosphere.

Wednesday, Auburn (6-2) brings momentum of that effort to Huntsville to take on UNC Asheville (5-5) at 7 p.m. inside the VBC’s Propst Arena in the Rocket City Classic presented by Akima. 

“We’re going up to Huntsville, and that building is already sold out.” Pearl said during his Tuesday press conference. “That’s just the way family is. And so you understand the responsibility I feel to try and have our team be competitive.

“Because I’m so appreciative for the support that we get. I know all the coaches at Auburn feel that way.”

Propst Arena has a seating capacity of 6,556 for basketball.

Following the romp over Indiana, and with the University of Southern California — which recently welcomed Bronny James to the lineup after his ordeal with a heart problem — coming to Auburn for a big non-conference game Sunday, Pearl sensed the “trap game” syndrome surrounding the tilt with UNC Asheville.

The Tigers beat Virginia Tech in the ACC-SEC challenge the game before travelling to App State.

“Asheville won their league last year,” he said. “They’re picked to win the league again this year. They’re not as good as they were a year ago, but obviously they know how to win, and they’ve played a pretty tough schedule.”

The return of the Rocket City Classic grew out of a partnership with Nations of Coaches, the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the Huntsville Sports Commission. According to the nonprofit Nations of Coaches, it supports college basketball coaches and student-athletes with character-building programs that focus on them as a person who plays basketball, not just a basketball player.

“When we relaunched the Rocket City Classic, our hope was to have a sellout crowd and a live TV broadcast in Propst Arena,” said Joel Lamp, sales manager-sports for the CVB. “To see it come to fruition this week is special but is just the start as we want to make this a memorable experience for everyone.

“We’ve got some special presentations planned during the game that recognize and celebrate what makes Huntsville great. Plus, with the unique broadcast that we’re doing with ‘The Next Round’ team that will feature a lot of local flavor that engages the basketball fans across the country to learn more about Huntsville.”

The game will be broadcast by SEC Network+.

“We couldn’t be more excited to host both Auburn and UNC Asheville in Huntsville and look forward to providing a memorable experience for the student-athletes, coaches and fans,” said Mark Russell, Sports Commission executive director. “People have been asking for Auburn basketball in the Rocket City for years. With so many alumni and fans in the community, I know the sold-out crowd is going to be exceptional and bring the noise.”

The game is a homecoming of sorts for two first-year Tigers. Starting junior guard Denver Jones, a transfer from Florida International, is from New Market and played at Buckhorn High School. Junior forward Chaney Johnson is a transfer from UAH, where he earned the Alabama Sports Writers Association award as Small College Athlete of the Year last season.

Auburn slipped into CBS’ Top 25 And 1 rankings at No. 26 Monday. The Tigers sit at No. 11 in the www.kenpom.com rankings. 

The UNC Asheville Bulldogs, a member of the Big South Conference, are coming off a 78-63 loss to Western Carolina.


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