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A March to Remember - Part 1

A look back at Auburn Basketball’s journey from the NCAA Tournament bubble to an unlikely Final Four run. Part 1 of a Multi-Part Series.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Semifinals-Virginia vs Auburn Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know about you, but I will always remember March 2019 as one of the best months of my life! And I would be lying to you right now if I wasn’t still absolutely heartbroken over how the Auburn Basketball season ended. To be as close as this team was to playing for a National Championship is an opportunity that many teams don’t get to have again. It’s so hard to get to the Final Four but this Auburn team did just that. And they did it going through a trio of bluebloods, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky and overcoming so much throughout that process to reach the final weekend of the College Basketball season. I can’t imagine how the players and coaches feel but the pain for me is going to be there for awhile.

It’s taken me a few days to get my mind right to write anything because it’s hard to believe it’s over. Being there in person on Saturday and seeing the season end the way that it did was at the time, wrong, and quite frankly, it’s still wrong. Auburn had the game won and then in an instant, they didn’t. It hurts. It hurts even more after the way Monday night’s game played out because I truly believe that Auburn would be your National Champion right now had a thing or two gone down differently Saturday night. But the Auburn players and coaches are to be commended for the way they handled the situation postgame. People can say what they want about Bruce Pearl but he was extremely gracious in defeat. As was Samir Doughty who answered all the tough questions after being called for a foul on the game’s last play. It’s a call that hadn’t been made all night until the very last second. A great basketball game was marred by an official’s call and that’s what people will remember the most from this game. That my friends is a crying shame!

Saturday night was the end of an era as well as this team will have several new faces next year so the fact we won’t see this group of young men play together again in an Auburn uniform is the saddest part of all of this. We’ll delve into that much further at the end of this series but for now, I wanted to take a look back at how this journey for Auburn Basketball really took off and how it kept going all the way to Minneapolis. In Part 1 of a multi-part series, we’ll look at the end of Auburn’s regular season and the start of a truly magical March run. This was truly, a March to Remember.

But before we get to the good stuff, we need to go back to the end of February when Auburn’s season looked to be on the ropes.

February 23rd - Auburn loses to Kentucky 80-53

This was the point in the season where Auburn was 18-9 and 7-7 in the SEC. Austin Wiley reaggravated his foot injury in this game. The Tigers were run off the floor by Kentucky and people began to question whether or not this team was going to make the NCAA Tournament. There were people saying Auburn didn’t deserve to be in the tournament and people that thought we may lose each of the last 4 games to miss the tournament. But looking at the remaining schedule: at Georgia, Mississippi State, at Alabama and Tennessee, I saw 3-1 at least if the team could play the way we all knew they were capable of. I tried to remain optimistic knowing that Auburn had yet to play their best basketball of the season. What followed is something that we’ll never forget!

February 27th - Auburn beats Georgia 78-75

Auburn went into this game without Austin Wiley and then we learned just before the game that Malik Dunbar suffered an ab strain and missed this game. Auburn’s 10 man rotation was suddenly down to 8. Despite that, Auburn came out firing on all cylinders in Athens putting 50 points up in the first half but the defense wasn’t spectacular giving up 40. In the 2nd half, Auburn went ice cold. Auburn went 7 minutes without scoring and Georgia went on a 14-0 run to take a 1-point lead. The last 10 minutes were a back and forth affair. Georgia had been so close to their first SEC win since early January and it looked for a bit that this was going to be the night Georgia broke their long SEC losing streak. With the score tied at 75, Auburn had the ball with under a minute left. Derek Ogbeide of Georgia blocked shots from Jared Harper and Anfernee McLemore and the ball went out of bounds with 3 seconds on the shot clock. Bruce Pearl called timeout with 27 seconds left. On the inbounds pass, Chuma Okeke did this..

This, was THE play that changed Auburn’s season. Auburn would hold on defense on Georgia’s final possession to get a 78-75 road victory. This was the moment. This was the moment that galvanized the Auburn Basketball team. It was now or never as the calendar turned to March.

March 2nd - Auburn beats Mississippi State 80-75

Auburn began March looking for a quality win to help boost their NCAA Tournament resume. The Bulldogs came into town winners of 5 straight games. Bryce Brown was magnificent on this afternoon scoring 24 points. He had struggled mightily in the previous 2 games so it was huge to see him get back on track in the friendly confines of Auburn Arena. Anfernee McLemore hit 4 3-pointers on his way to a 14 point game. Jared Harper made just 2 shots on this day, but had 9 assists. Auburn got killed on the boards in this game, having a -20 rebound margin. Tyson Carter got hot from 3 for Miss State as Auburn nearly let a 19 point lead with 6:20 left slip away. The Bulldogs cut the deficit down to 4 with under 2 minutes left before Bryce Brown provided the dagger.

Auburn had a Q1 win they desperately needed at the time, it was their 9th SEC win and essentially locked up an NCAA Tournament berth. This day was also profitable for Auburn as teams in directly in front of Auburn in the standings (Ole Miss, South Carolina, Florida, and Mississippi State) all lost to put Auburn back in the running for a potential double bye in the SEC Tournament.

March 5th - Auburn beats Alabama 66-60

This was a game a lot of fans were really concerned about going in. Auburn hasn’t fared well historically at Coleman Coliseum and based on the first half, it looked as if history may repeat itself. Auburn trailed 34-23 at halftime as Alabama was playing desperate as this was a win they needed for their own NCAA Tournament hopes. But as we learned in Tuscaloosa this season, this game truly epitomized “A Tale of Two Halves.” After Alabama led by 13, the comeback began for Auburn. Chuma Okeke went off in this game, scoring 17 points and had 14 rebounds. The defensive effort in the second half was phenomenal holding Alabama to 26 2nd half points. Nothing more epitomized that than this sequence with about 13 minutes left and Auburn down 9.

Game On!

This was in the midst of an 18-2 run that saw Auburn go from trailing by 12 to up by 4. Auburn never trailed again despite being tied multiple times. When Auburn needed a basket late, it was the Jared Harper show. There were games this year when the best play was for everyone to get out of the way and let Harper go the paint and make a play. He did that on back-to-back possessions and Samir hit 2 free throws as Auburn pulled off a huge comeback win. The win meant that Auburn won 2 regular season games against BOTH Alabama and Georgia for the first time since 1967.

March 9th - Auburn beats Tennessee 84-80

So Auburn comes home with a lot of momentum after sweeping Alabama and lo and behold, #5 Tennessee comes to town. They came to Auburn looking for at least a share of the SEC title, a win would guarantee that. Their motivation was seemingly clear for this game, especially after Auburn won in Knoxville the previous season. They wanted to ruin Auburn’s senior day. Jordan Bowden did his best in the 1st half to do that, along with Grant Williams, and the Vols led at halftime 41-35. Auburn scored the first 7 points of the second half before Tennessee responded with a 7-0 run of their own.

Then Chuma Okeke, again, took over. He made a 3 to cut the deficit to 4 and then stole a pass and finished with a dunk on the other end to make it 50-48 Tennessee.

The game went back and forth but Auburn got the lead on this circus shot from J’Von McCormick. We’ve become accustomed to McCormick taking the ball into the paint, absorbing contact and making the shot but this was absolutely spectacular.

With the score tied at 69 late, Jared Harper bit a pair of 3-pointers to go up 75-69. After Admiral Schofield hit a 3, Samir Doughty made his biggest contribution of the game. After hitting a 3 earlier with Auburn down by 6, he here gets the ball following a Grant Williams block with 1:15 left, and drills a 3 to put Auburn back up 6 with about a minute left.

Jared Harper and Samir Doughty hit free throws in the final minute after Tennessee cut the lead down to 2 and Auburn scored their biggest win of the season.

Auburn went into the SEC Tournament as a 5 seed with a lot of momentum and a favorable draw in the Tournament avoiding Tennessee and Kentucky until the Championship.

Come back tomorrow to read Part 2 as Auburn went to the SEC Tournament in Nashville on a 4 game winning streak and looked to improve on their NCAA Tournament seeding. Until tomorrow, War Eagle!