Weird Win for Tigers Sets Up Final Week of Regular Season
Bryce Brown shoots against Mississippi State Saturday March 2, 2019. (Wade Rackley/ Auburn Athletics)
It was a weird game and a weird win for coach Bruce Pearl’s Tigers. Saturday afternoon, Auburn welcomed Mississippi State to Auburn Arena for yet another important game. Simply to talk about a must-win game for Auburn at this point is weird enough. Yet, Auburn had to win this game to avoid becoming a bubble team.
Of course, to talk about Auburn as a bubble team seems silly as they were staring at a second straight 20-win season. The reason for this is that Auburn is one of the few teams that can only play itself out of a Big Dance bid. Lose to the Bulldogs, lose to Alabama, fail to show up against Tennessee, and have a poor showing in the SEC tournament, and it is possible Auburn wouldn’t be invited, perhaps even probable that the Tigers would be looked over entirely.
Weird, yes. But certainly possible. Auburn dropped four of six games to end last season, and while not quite on the bubble, was at least being questioned over its legitimacy as a tournament team. That was after the hot start where the Tigers were unbeatable before losing Anfernee McLemore in the last month of the season. This season has been weird in its own right as Auburn has never looked quite like the elite team it was supposed to be with a squad that included Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy.
The weirdness continued Saturday. While Auburn did get the much needed win, how it did it was just head-scratching in many ways.
The strangest thing I believe I saw on Saturday was just how badly Auburn could play. With 6:20 left in the game, the Tigers led by 19 and were cruising. With Auburn’s talented guard duo of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown, a huge comeback should not be possible if they just take care of the ball. Even if Auburn never took another shot and just milked the shot clock and played some semblance of defense on the other end, 19 points should be too much for any team in America.
State never led this game, but in the waning minutes of what had been essentially a blowout, the Bulldogs closed the gap to four and when the final buzzer sounded had lost by just five points, 80-75. In the final six-minute stretch, Auburn had four turnovers and four fouls. That doesn’t sound like much on paper. But, watching the game was painful, and reading about it doesn’t bring home things such as the incredibly poor shot selection the Tigers displayed, which isn’t a recorded stat. There are other things that did show up in the box score like missed dunks and the opposition’s offensive rebounds.
It’s hard to jump on Auburn too much over offensive rebounds, especially after hitting 43 percent of three-point attempts for a 13–30 night. After all, you don’t need offensive rebounding when the shots are falling. However, Auburn let State have its way in the offensive paint as the Bulldogs had 14 offensive rebounds, many of them late in the contest when the game should have been put out of hand.
State’s second-chance points kept it in the contest and was really they only way the Bullies weren’t run out of the gym, aside from Auburn’s guards pushing the tempo and taking bad shots at times. Credit to State’s coaching staff as early in the game, they put tremendous pressure on the perimeter, and Auburn’s guards could not find room to operate.
Late in the game, the Bulldogs backed off, and Auburn was rushing bad shots because it was finding opportunities to shoot that hadn’t existed earlier. Perhaps that was the game plan. Perhaps it was just the Bulldogs wearing down. Regardless, Auburn’s shot selection was incredibly poor the last six minutes.
Truth be told, Jared Harper’s shot selection was bad all game. State’s pressure on him was stifling. They would not let as Harper could not get a good look at the basket. Harper had one of his poorest shooting nights on record as he shot just 2–10 in the game with an 0–6 mark from downtown. However, he did have nine assists and no turnovers. Bryce Brown led Auburn with 24 points thanks to one of his better shooting nights, something very important for Auburn’s success as he has been slumping down the stretch.
One of the more weird things Saturday night was Auburn’s best shooter wasn’t Brown, Harper, or any other regular offensive contributor. It was big man Anfernee McLemore, who was 4–6 from downtown. He is now 27–81 on the season after only attempting 47 threes in the previous two years combined.
McLemore isn’t the same player he was before last year’s late season accident. He isn’t jumping out of the gym any more but is blocking shots at an SEC-best clip. And, he has found other ways to contribute as can be seen with his new outside shot.
Auburn now travels to Alabama, a team desperate for a win. Bama HAS to win this game to have any chance to make the tournament, and that is a bad spot for Auburn to be in before Tennessee comes to town. The Tigers destroyed Alabama at home last month, and with the red-hot Vols coming to Auburn Arena, it would be easy to overlook the Tide.
Auburn has a huge opportunity to improve its seeding if it can have a great week. Obviously, beating Tennessee speaks for itself, but Alabama is no slouch at home and highly respected inside Coleman Colosseum. The game tips off at 8:00 PM and is on ESPNU.