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AUBURN — Cops inspected the nooks and crannies of Auburn Arena late Friday night, scanning for stray students in case any had tried to overstay their invite to the gymnastics meet earlier that evening.
None were found. Why hide indoors? The biggest party on campus was out in the 30-degree night, students warming themselves only with spirited Bodda Getta chants and refreshments for extracurricular support.
The graveyard shift had arrived in their makeshift colony.
When basketball coach Bruce Pearl went out there to deliver pizzas, he observed "lots of drinking going on," he said Saturday after his No. 2 Tigers dispatched No. 12 Kentucky in an 80-71 comeback.
The best part?
"We've got so much more of this weekend to enjoy right now after this win," Pearl said, plenty aware of what he was implying.
Auburn basketball shows no signs of stopping its high-flying ride as the university's life of the party — and this grand celebration might last through March. Through April for that matter.
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The Tigers (18-1, 7-0 SEC) looked mortal for a moment Saturday, and not for the first time. Kentucky had them out of character. But for the fifth time this season, they erased a double-digit deficit almost with ease. Adjustments are a piece of cake for this team, especially when it's playing in front of such an explosive audience. Where those students found life after being corralled in close quarters between barricades all night ... that will always remain a mystery.
"To me, it feels like a movie," sophomore guard K.D. Johnson said. "I've never played in nothing like this. It's just so fun. I feel like it's something different every game. I don't get bored of them doing the same thing — they always mix it up. They camped out yesterday, and I went out yesterday to go show my appreciation and take a picture with them. I love them."
It's a symbiotic relationship: The very first group of students to pitch a tent outside the arena sent Pearl an email when they arrived at 6 a.m. Friday. They were asking if Pearl would unlock the arena doors overnight. He replied with a promise to bring pizza after practice that day. The players showed up and provided renewed life after the collective mindset mid-afternoon was, as one camper described it: "Trying to convince ourselves this is fun."
It was a sort of joyous anarchy. Tents were selling out in Auburn. One student bought every hand-warmer from the nearest campus store for $120 and tried up-charging for $3 each to campers throughout the afternoon. By the evening, "the only problem is alumni started handing them out for free," the entrepreneur said. His experiment ended with him barely breaking even.
By 11 p.m., students' spirits were beginning to lower with the realization of the full extent of their commitment. A student-section leader was wandering the throngs, reminding everyone that "it's better to have a good story than a good time."
Former Auburn receiver Sammie Coates showed up before midnight with cases of beer to hand out. Throughout the evening, other alumni had dropped in with more donations: pizza, donuts and chicken. Life support.
Did they sleep?
"I'm currently laying on the concrete trying," one student texted around 1 a.m.
Moments later, another sent this message: "Sleeping is borderline impossible."
Their beds will feel softer than ever Saturday night. The students brought a pregame energy unlike anything that's ever been seen surrounding Auburn basketball. It was enough for Pearl to address them two hours before the game, even as the Tigers were trying to focus on the task at hand.
"I am grateful to our students," Pearl said afterward. "If we’d lost the game, I would have felt bad for them because they froze their (butts) off last night."
His team has the personality to match those fans: It's not uncommon to see Johnson, Dylan Cardwell or Jabari Smith fist-pumping and screaming toward the crowd in a live-ball situation.
After the win, Pearl said the freshman Smith asked him: "Coach, this is going to get you to smile, right?"
Pearl called the win merely "holding serve" — and his players have clearly bought into that, seeing as Johnson was practicing 3-pointers in an empty arena an hour after the game — but what happened Saturday in (and outside) Auburn Arena was indicative of what will only build as March Madness approaches.
The Tigers might be ranked No. 1 for the first time in program history Monday.
But it's not just that basketball is better at Auburn than it ever has been.
Basketball, thanks to this team's charisma and a responding fanbase, is more fun at Auburn than it ever has been.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Auburn basketball became the biggest party on campus for Kentucky game