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Auburn's hopes depend on ability to 'hit open shots' from 3


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Auburn's March Madness hopes depend on ability to 'hit open shots' from 3

By Tom Green | tgreen@al.com
5-7 minutes

Wendell Green Jr. repeated the words again and again.

Hit open shots.

Answering questions in the depths of Amalie Arena on Friday afternoon after top-seeded Auburn was unceremoniously eliminated from the SEC Tournament, the Tigers’ sixth man uttered those words five times in short succession. Green’s point was further emphasized with each utterance, but the words felt more like a mantra of sorts — something he was trying to speak into existence.

Read more Auburn hoops: Analysis from Auburn’s 67-62 loss to Texas A&M

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And who could blame him after Auburn’s streaky shooting proved costly in its quarterfinal loss to Texas A&M in Tampa, Fla.? The Tigers shot just 16.2 percent in the first half of their 67-62 defeat, struggling to buy a basket in Amalie Arena as they dug themselves a 16-point halftime deficit. Those shooting woes were amplified from 3-point range, with the team connecting on just three of its 20 attempts in the first half, many of them open looks.

“They made us shoot open shots; they gave us open shots,” Green said. “We just have to hit open shots. We were penetrating, making plays for each other. I feel like we shared the ball unselfishly. We trusted each other. We just didn’t hit shots in the first half or the whole game, really. They were collapsing, and we just got to hit open shots.”

It was a byproduct of Texas A&M’s defensive gameplan heading into the day. The Aggies lost their first matchup with the Tigers last month, thanks in large part to a dominating inside effort for Auburn in Neville Arena, but in that meeting Texas A&M held Bruce Pearl’s team to its worst 3-point shooting performance of the season. Auburn was just 3-of-25 from deep in that Feb. 12 matchup, and Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams wanted to try to build off that defensive gameplan in the SEC Tournament.

“We don’t really have a rim protector, and so I think the only thing that gave us a chance is we did have to flood the channel, and then the rotation out to their threes had to be contested,” Williams said. “…Statistically speaking, we would have no chance if we allowed them to do what they wanted to do inside, so we had to defensively play inside-out.”

That meant sagging more on the perimeter, oftentimes switching one through four with its bigger guards, and trying to clog everything in the lane while also throwing double-teams on the interior to make Auburn’s looks at the rim more difficult or force kick-outs to the 3-point line. Williams wanted his team to make Auburn earn everything it got on the inside this time around; the Aggies weren’t going to be bullied in the paint in the rematch.

“They did a good job on the ball-screen coverages,” Pearl said. “Blitzing their five and switching their four. Yeah, we would have loved to have gotten a few more paint touches, and yet when we got that ball in the paint, they blocked it and changed it. We didn’t shoot it very well from two either. You look at our shooting percentage from both two and three, we struggled.”

Auburn was just 3-of-17 inside the arc in the first half and 12-of-33 for the day. The Tigers finished the game shooting 9-of-36 on 3-pointers, with Green and Jabari Smith accounting for eight of those makes on 19 attempts, several of them coming down the stretch during the team’s frantic late-game rally. The rest of Auburn’s rotation was a combined 1-of-17 from beyond the arc — just 5.8 percent for the game.

“It’s been something that’s plagued us all year,” Pearl said.

The shooting woes have been a concern for Auburn throughout the season. The Tigers have many strengths, and they demonstrated throughout the year that they’re one of the nation’s best teams. One thing they have struggled with has been 3-point shooting — a recurring theme for the Tigers in the three seasons since their Final Four run in 2019.

Auburn entered the SEC Tournament shooting just 32.3 percent from beyond the arc, good for 254th nationally. The team appeared to be hitting its stride as it closed out the regular season, hitting 10 3-pointers in back-to-back games while shooting at a 40.8 percent clip in wins against Mississippi State and South Carolina.

The perimeter shooting came back down to earth against Texas A&M, and another cold-shooting performance in the NCAA Tournament could quickly derail Auburn’s national title aspirations. Pearl is sure the opponents that Auburn draws in the NCAA Tournament will dare them to make those shots, just as Texas A&M did.

“We’ve got to find a way to get the guys’ confidence back a little bit with the shots,” Pearl said. “…Doesn’t take a rocket scientist. The kids even said it. They said they kind of let us — they kind of backed off, packed it in, made it really difficult for us to get to the rim or to get it inside because of —and the only way you change that is by making a couple of shots. And so, we’re going to see. We’ll see more of that.”

It’ll be on the Tigers to figure out how to take advantage of that over the next week of preparation and, as Green said Friday, hit open shots. Their title hopes depend on it.

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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