Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
Auburn's forward Horace Spencer (0) and New Mexico State guard JoJo Zamora (4) battle for a rebound in the first half during a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — In the middle of Auburn’s run to the SEC Tournament championship last week, Tigers senior forward Horace Spencer used Twitter to share a happy birthday message with one very special recipient, his son Avery.

“Avery just turned two today,” Spencer wrote March 15, “happy birthday to my baby boy. Daddy wishes that he was with you today and to watch you eat you cake. I gotta make the most out of today.”

The message became more personal later, when dad called son following a win over South Carolina to video chat. The brief conversation — captured and shared on Twitter by the Auburn basketball team — brought a wide smile to Spencer’s face.

“I call my son after every game, just to see his smiling face. No matter what happens, he makes me feel better,” he said Friday, as the Tigers prepare for their next challenge, facing Kansas in the NCAA Tournament’s second round.

Auburn, the No. 5 seed in the Midwest Regional, moved on to Saturday’s action at Vivint Arena by edging New Mexico State 78-77 in the opening round. Saturday’s game against the No. 4-seed Jayhawks tips at approximately 7:40 p.m. MDT on TBS.

Little Avery didn’t make the trip. He’s back home, at Auburn.

He’s on his dad’s mind, though, and provides a spark for the 6-foot-8 hoopster out of Philadelphia who played high school ball at Findlay Prep in the Las Vegas suburbs.

“It means a lot to me, having someone looking up to me every day and having that unconditional love is very important,” Spencer said. “It also gives me a drive, too. That’s why I play so hard — have the heart, mind and soul knowing that if I take care of my business on the court, my son will be taken care of off the court.”

Spencer, who's averaging 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as a key role player this season, is one of two parents on the team, along with fellow senior Malik Dunbar. Having a son dependent on him has taught Spencer invaluable lessons.

“Having somebody I must take care of by any means necessary makes me unselfish. I can’t think about what I want in life, I think about what he needs and I have to provide for my son, as a father, as a role model and just as a good dad,” he said.

Spencer understands the importance of providing not just material things, but a proper mental support for his son while learning himself as a young father.

“Being a father and dad are different. My son calls me 'dada.' Me being a dada to him, he loves me no matter what I do. Just being there for him, I teach him how to be a man. He’s only two right now, but I’m trying to teach him, be that nurturer. There’s a lot that goes into being a dad that I’m trying to learn as a young man myself,” Spencer said.

Those teaching moments will last a lifetime. For now, Spencer and the Tigers are preparing to face a tough test: containing a Kansas frontcourt that provided the heart behind 50 points in the paint for the Jayhawks in their opening-round win over Northeastern.

Leading the way for Kansas was Dedric Lawson, who had 25 points, 11 rebounds and a steal against the Huskies.

"He's a good physical, offensive presence down there. Not very athletic, so I feel like we could take advantage of that. He's a big body, he has good footwork and he has a soft touch around the basket, he can step out on the perimeter. He can put the ball on the floor," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said of Lawson.

"But I have great confidence in my guys that we'll do a great job on him. He's a good player, but I feel like our guys are just as good, maybe even better."

Spencer, too, is confident his group of big men — which includes fellow forwards Chuma Okeke and Anfernee McLemore — can handle the challenge.

"We’re pretty athletic. I feel like we can match them man to man," he said.

Comment on this story

Auburn is making its second straight NCAA appearance after a 15-year absence, and on the line for the Tigers against Kansas is the right to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for just the fifth time in school history.

Junior guard Jared Harper, who led Auburn with 17 points, four 3-pointers and four assists in the win over New Mexico State, understands the magnitude of the matchup that lies ahead for himself, Spencer and the Tigers.

"It's a big thing. Coming into Auburn, I wanted to make history," he said. "We've made the tournament two years in a row, but I want to take it a step further, make the Sweet Sixteen and just be able to make even more of a run."