serious concern for Auburn against Kansas
ByBRANDON MARCELLO 6 hours ago
SALT LAKE CITY — Bruce Pearl joked Thursday his heart stopped beating in the final moments of a near-meltdown in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Now the coach just hopes the blood is flowing for his Auburn players heading into the second round against No. 4 seed Kansas.
“Look, five games in eight days. That’s a lot,” Pearl said. “I think it showed. We had only so much effort and energy, we weren’t very good defensively and I think a lot of it had to do with fatigue. And a lot of it had to do with their quickness, and so on and so forth, but they beat us to 50-50 balls, they out-rebounded us. This is a long afternoon today, getting that early game out of the way and a full day’s rest tomorrow, I can tell you right now they will not be on their feet much before Saturday. A lot of film, not much walkthrough.”
Auburn (27-9) led by as many as 13 against New Mexico State, but faltered in the final minutes as the Tigers committed five turnovers in the final three minutes and watched an eight-point lead dwindle to one point twice. New Mexico State, however, could not hit two of three free throws or a 3-pointer in the final seconds to upset the No. 5 seed Tigers. Auburn won 78-77.
What is concerning for the Tigers is just how lackadaisical they looked on defense in the second half. The Tigers allowed 48 points and the Aggies hit 58.3 percent of their shots in the second half. New Mexico State’s guards blew past Auburn’s defense, leaving the Tigers on their heels.
Auburn entered the tournament with one of the shorter turnarounds of the Power 5 teams after winning the SEC Tournament on Sunday. The Tigers won four straight games in as many days to win in Nashville traveling back to Auburn that night and later across the country Tuesday morning to Salt Lake City. The Tigers’ 11:30 a.m. tipoff here Thursday was the third game on the first full day of the NCAA Tournament. The quick turnaround, along with only one day away from the court before a five-hour flight to Salt Lake City and practices Tuesday and Wednesday in the high altitude, proved to be an issue late against the Aggies.
“They’re popped,” Pearl said, “and that had a lot to do with the fact we could not get a stop, and we couldn’t close out the win.”
The good news for Auburn arrived late Thursday night, when most player were or should have been in bed. The Tigers will play the final game of the day Saturday at 8:40 p.m. CT, giving them roughly eight more hours of rest than some expected.
Center Austin Wiley played in his fourth straight game Thursday after missing 11 games with a lower-leg injury. His minutes increased again against the Aggies as he played nearly 11 minutes while scoring 4 points and grabbing 2 rebounds. He said he could see his teammates tiring as the game progressed Thursday.
“A little bit,” he said. “We know how to push through it. That goes back to preseason training, just working out throughout the season. We’re ready for it. We’re built for it.”
Pearl spoke to his two top guards, Jared Harper and Bryce Brown, in the locker room as teammates loaded their belongings into bags and headed out the door for the team bus. He told Harper, who led the way with 17 points but also fouled out for the first time this season, to drink plenty of milk.
He’s also not joking about keeping the players off their feet. There will be a light walkthrough and more film study than usual Friday. Wing man Samir Doughtymentioned the most tired players on the team are those two leaders: Brown and Harper. They led the team in minutes, with both playing more than 30 against the Aggies. Brown struggled shooting, missing his first six 3-pointers before hitting two in the second half.
Harper, the unquestioned leader of the team, was one of the final players to leave the locker room Thursday. Both knees were heavily wrapped in ice. He hobbled out the door, reached to his left and grabbed a drink.
"You want a sandwich?" an Auburn staffer asked.
Harper did not turn around. He saved his strength for the walk to the bus.