In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Auburn got its 9th all-time win as the Tigers beat the New Mexico State Aggies 78-77 in a wild game. The Tigers led by thirteen points later before almost completely collapsing, and narrowly avoided the classic 12-over-5 upset as a last-second three fell off for the Aggies. Auburn will advance to take on the winner of the Kansas-Northeastern matchup on Saturday.
Jared Harper and J’Von McCormick both finished with 17 points, while Chuma Okeke added 13 for the Tigers. The Aggies were led by their big guys Johnny McCants and Ivan Aurrecoechea, who combined for 29 points on 10-13 shooting.
Auburn played sloppily to open the game, missing two easy layups and committing a couple of careless turnovers as New Mexico State took a 7-6 lead at the first timeout. Only Anfernee McLemore and Chuma Okeke three-pointers had the Tigers on the board four minutes in. Austin Wiley checked in and scored four quick points, while Jared Harper again got saddled with a pair of early fouls. That facilitated J’Von McCormick’s increased minutes again, and he scored twice, including a nice teardrop to tie the game at 19-19 midway through the half.
That spurt from McCormick continued as he forced a turnover and scored on a fastbreak, and Auburn completed a 10-0 run with an easy layup from Danjel Purifoy underneath to take a 25-19 lead at the under-8 timeout of the first half. Johnny McCants provided a spark for the Aggies, hitting and early bank-shot three, and then scoring inside while also playing good defense. He was single-handedly keeping the Aggies in the game at the final break of the half as he finished a three-point play to bring NMSU within a 28-22 deficit. Auburn went just 3-12 from deep in the first half, and the Tigers only led 32-29 at the intermission.
In the second half, Auburn started off much better than they finished the previous period. The Tigers hit their first two three-pointers, and forced four straight turnovers en route to a 10-0 run. Samir Doughty buried a deep three five minutes in to give Auburn the largest lead of the game at 48-37, and the threes kept falling. Jared Harper and J’Von McCormick paid each other off with assists on buckets, and Auburn kept the 11-point lead at 58-49 with 9:15 to play.
The threes kept falling, and Bryce Brown’s 365th career make from distance put Auburn up by 13 points, and the Tigers led 67-54 at the 6:52 mark of the game. Auburn had made just 1-6 free throws in the second half, but made up for it by hitting double-digit threes once again. New Mexico State didn’t wilt, though, and quickly trimmed that lead down to just a 67-61 margin, but Jared Harper buried a long three to rebuild a three-possession lead at the 4:12 mark of the ballgame.
Auburn’s lead got trimmed to 70-65, but McCormick converted a huge three-point play, and in the final two minutes, the Tigers started to show cracks and let the Aggies back into it. New Mexico State got within a 73-69 margin at the foul line, as Horace Spencer fouled out in the final minute, and then forced a turnover as the ball skipped off of Jared Harper’s hands with 41 seconds to go. It was Auburn’s sixth turnover in the final six minutes of the game.
New Mexico State kept hitting shots to stay close, and down 77-76, Samir Doughty hit a free throw, but Bryce Brown fouled Terrell Brown with 1.1 seconds left to send him to the line for three foul shots. Brown missed the first, made the second, and missed the third, but NMSU got the ball as it was tipped out of bounds by Doughty. A last-second three fell away and Auburn won 78-77.
The victory is Auburn’s 27th of the season, now the second-most wins in a season in Tiger history after the 1998-99 team (29 wins). We’ll see which team Auburn gets to face in the Round of 32 when Kansas faces Northeastern this afternoon.
Whew. War Eagle.