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About Last Night: Duke 78, Auburn 72

Hate to lose, but...

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Duke Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

You remember how everyone felt after losing to Alabama in the 2009 Iron Bowl?

“Man, we played the best team in the country all the way down to the final moments.”

Last night was kind of like that, except maybe even better.

Auburn lost to Duke by six in Maui, but the following was true:

  1. The Tigers played without Danjel Purifoy (he’s still suspended for four more games) and the guy in his spot in the starting lineup fouled out and scored zero points.
  2. Duke attempted 18 free throws in the first half. Auburn attempted zero.
  3. Auburn missed its first eight three-pointers of the game.
  4. Overall, Duke went 23-34 from the foul line. Auburn went 5-9 from the foul line.
  5. Auburn only shot 36% (28-77) from the floor, and many of those misses were wide open looks.

The following is also true, and encouraging:

  1. Auburn committed only nine turnovers on the night, several of them completely unforced errors.
  2. The Tigers were only out-rebounded 46-41, but had 18 offensive boards compared to 14 for Duke.
  3. Auburn outscored Duke 18-7 in second chance points, 24-8 in bench points, and 32-26 in the paint.

Duke won last night on the back of a couple very important things — their ability to start fast in both the first and second halves, and their ability to get to the free throw line in the first half. The Tigers didn’t back down, and even though they looked a little starstruck at times against the Duke superstars, always punched back. Falling behind by 17 in the first half and 16 in the second half didn’t exactly help, and those margins were just too large to overcome. Auburn got as close as five points when Bryce Brown’s three made it 61-56, but Cam Reddish answered almost immediately and the next time Auburn got within two possessions was on Jared Harper’s last-second three to pull us toward the final margin of 78-72.

Bruce Pearl coached up his guys to go almost toe-to-toe with pretty much the best lineup in the country last night.

And while there certainly were a ton of Auburn fans crying about the foul disparity last night, it was totally the Tigers’ fault that they weren’t shooting free throws in the first half, this following sequence aside...

Auburn didn’t do a good job at all before halftime of getting themselves in a situation and forcing a Duke defender to make a choice. Marques Bolden’s seven blocks also helped the Blue Devils, but Auburn never really forced the issue until a few minutes into the second half. When they did, Austin Wiley started playing his best basketball of the season. He hit two free throws and then threw down an alley-oop from Jared Harper to give the Tigers life after falling behind by 16 early in the second half.

Speaking of Jared Harper, he finished with 22 points to lead all scorers, and he got an especially long handshake from Coach K in the line after the game. He made some mistakes last night, but he was Auburn’s best player again and much of the reason that it was close.

And hey, on the Zion Williamson dunk mixtape, Auburn won’t be making an appearance.

Speaking of Zion, it’s pretty apparent that R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish make that team go. They’re the meat and potatoes of the roster, while Zion’s the dessert. He’ll get you the wow play with a dunk or a flashy block, but Barrett and Reddish are the ones that need to have great games night in and night out for Duke to be as elite as they’ve been this year already.

You hate to have to rationalize a loss, but Auburn played its C+ game last night, without one of its best players, without getting to the foul line, without shooting well, and came within six of beating the top-ranked team in the country. With a full roster and some more time playing together, Auburn can absolutely beat Duke and anyone else in the country. We’re not going to see a team like this in the SEC, so it stands to reason that the Tigers are in good shape moving forward until the postseason.

If you’re not extremely excited about the rest of this year, then you’re dead inside. Let’s beat Arizona tonight and move back on to the mainland. War Eagle!