GREENVILLE, S.C. - Auburn didn't just survive and advance, the Tigers thrived and danced.
Behind an 18-0 run that spanned halftime, Auburn defeated Jacksonville State 80-61 Friday in the opening round of the Midwest Regional at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, the Tigers' second -largest margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament game.
"Auburn's defense was outstanding," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. "That's been what's carried us all season long. That gives us our best chance in the tournament. We stepped up. We had to play well to beat that team, and we played well."
SEC Freshman of the Year Jabari Smith led Auburn with 20 points and a career-high 14 rebounds, making 4 of 7 3-pointers while adding four assists.
"We knew how tough every game was going to be," Smith said. "We knew how good every team in the tournament was going to be. They're here for a reason. We were already focused coming into this game and ready to get the win."
"He's got a lot of Kevin Durant in him," Jacksonville State coach Ray Harper said of Smith. "He's going to be a great pro."
Walker Kessler came within one blocked shot of a triple-double, blocking nine shots, scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
K.D. Johnson rebounded from a tough SEC Tournament outing to lead Auburn with a career-high seven assists while scoring 10 points with only one turnover in 30 minutes.
"I struggled the last game," Johnson said. "I just let it come to me. I was looking to get my teammates more involved."
Smith punctuated the Tigers' victory by rebounding his missed 3-pointer, driving to the hoop and authoritatively dunking over a JSU defender while being fouled.
"I went to attack the rim," Smith said. "I knew he was going to foul me. I finished it. It felt good to finish the game. I wanted to get to the cup and finish the game."
"Did y'all see that?" Johnson rhetorically asked reporters. "That was crazy. That was the first time he ever showed me that he can get that high."
"It was a pretty nasty dunk," Kessler said. "It shows how athletic and how good of a player Jabari is."
"He postered him," Pearl said.
Allen Flanigan added 10 points while Wendell Green Jr. contributed nine points and six assists.
Auburn overcame an early six-point deficit by closing the first half on an 11-0 run to lead 39-27 at halftime.
When Johnson hit his second 3-pointer for the final basket of the half, he raced back to defend, leaping and slapping the court upon landing.
The run continued early in the second half with Smith hitting a 3-pointer to put the Tigers ahead 46-27.
"It comes in such rhythm for him," Pearl said. "He doesn't force anything. Jabari is ultra-competitive. He wants the ball but it's not about him, it's about us trying to win. We've got (No.) 10 and they don't."
"I've been ready to play since that buzzer went off in Tampa," Smith said. "It was good to get the first one out of the way."
Auburn tied its NCAA Tournament record with 23 assists, equaling the Tigers' total vs. Bradley in 1988, while committing only 11 turnovers.
Kessler led the Tigers in the half with nine points, six rebounds and four assists.
Johnson tied his career high of four assists by halftime. Zep Jasper also had four assists in the half.
Jaylin Williams scored eight points in the half on 3-for-3 shooting, including a pair of 3-pointers, before exiting early in the second half after colliding with Kessler.
Advancing to the second round, the Tigers (28-5) will play Sunday vs. Miami.
As the Tigers boarded the bus before the game, hundreds of Auburn fans at Tiger Walk serenaded Pearl with a rendition of "Happy Birthday," in celebration of his 62nd birthday.
"You're already champions," Pearl said, recapping his pregame message. "You're the SEC champions. Now relax, go play basketball, go have some fun. I tried to get some pressure off of them because they want to win really badly."