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A March to Remember - Part 3

It was a Tale of 2 games as Auburn began their run to the Final Four.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Auburn vs Kansas Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we looked at Auburn’s run through the end of the regular season and through the SEC Tournament. Originally, this was going to be a 3 part series but I didn’t think anybody wanted to read a 4,000 word article so I’ve decided to split this part up to be able to look closer at each of the games. So today, we’ll look back at Auburn’s first 2 NCAA Tournament games. Needless to say, it was a tale of 2 games for Auburn during their stay in Utah’s capital city.

The NCAA Tournament Committee must have thought that 5 seed looked so good on Auburn in the SEC Tournament that the Tigers were given a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They were paired with New Mexico State who Seth Davis immediately picked as his upset special. It wouldn’t be the first time Seth Davis picked against Auburn.

To Seth’s credit, as I filed into my seat at the Final Four he was watching us come in and I yelled at him “Please Don’t Pick Us!” I got a response along the lines of, “yeah I’m 0 for 4 with you guys and I won’t be picking you guys tonight either.” I of course, was extremely happy for him to say that. Oh for him to be 0 for 5....

Anyways, we’ll get to the Final Four later but for now, this writer needs to get back on task.

Personally, I thought Auburn deserved a 4 seed after what they accomplished in Nashville. They came into the NCAA Tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country, winners of 8 straight games. Auburn went from struggling for Q1 wins, to several of them, including 2 over Tennessee in an 8 day span. What was more upsetting about the seeding was the fact that after Auburn had won 4 games in 4 days, they were shipped to Salt Lake City for a Thursday morning 11:30 a.m. local tip. What a great reward for winning the SEC Tournament if you ask me, not.

March 21st - Auburn beats New Mexico State 78-77

Bruce Pearl would later go on to say that the hardest game to win in the NCAA Tournament is the first one. What a true statement that was. This Aggies team was a really good team Auburn was facing. They had won 30 games, rolled through the WAC, and had only lost 4 times, and not since the very beginning of January. They played more guys than Auburn, which was remarkable considering so many teams lacked in depth compared to Auburn and were as Bruce called them, one of the quickest teams Auburn faced all year.

To me, this game will be remembered as the J’Von McCormick game. McCormick scored a career high 16 points in the team’s biggest game of the year up to that point. He came into the game and logged heavy first half minutes as Jared Harper got himself into foul trouble for the 2nd straight game. Then McCormick continued to contribute in the second half as well. It was what I like to call a #VintageJvon performance.

The first half was a back and forth affair with Auburn holding a 32-29 lead at halftime. Offensively, it was a struggle as Harper and Bryce Brown had a combined 7 points at halftime. Auburn also struggled on the boards in this game, putting up a -15 rebound margin.

The 2nd half started with back to back 3s from Malik Dunbar and Bryce Brown, his first of the game and Auburn opened up an early 12 point halftime lead. The Aggies would keep it within striking distance though and Harper finally got going from 3 as he hit 4 in the second half of this game. Auburn led 67-54 with 7:10 left and the Aggies went on a 7-0 run cutting the lead down to 6 before Harper hit his final 3 of the game.

McCormick’s And-1 with 2:13 left would put Auburn up 73-65.

That was the last shot Auburn made in this game. What followed was chaos, a breakdown, and fatigue clearly settling in. Uncharacteristic turnovers, fouls, missed free throws, and mental lapses.

Auburn led by 3 with 14 seconds left when Jared Harper uncharacteristically fouled in the backcourt, which was his 5th foul. The Aggies made 1 of 2 from the line before McCormick hit 2 free throws on the other end. The Aggies weren’t done making a 3 and then fouling Samir Doughty, Auburn’s best free throw shooter. He would make 1 of 2 and the Aggies had a chance to tie or win late. Terrell Brown of New Mexico State shot a 3 and got fouled by Bryce Brown. Not like this Auburn.... what a cruel way to lose a basketball game (as we would see 2 weeks later).

For some reason, I had a good feeling he wasn’t going to make all 3 of his free throws and at worst we would go to overtime. Still, New Mexico State had the momentum at this point. He missed the first, OT at worst, made the second and the third rimmed out but went out of bounds. Still Aggies ball.

With 1.1 seconds left, the Aggies got a wide open look to win the game. Airball. Buzzer. Auburn survives and advances. Thank goodness.

If there’s one word to describe the end of that game, it’s relief. That perfectly sums up what every Auburn player and fan was feeling after this one. The players walked off disappointed despite the win because they knew how close it was to being over. This game fueled them for what was to come.

March 23rd - Auburn beats Kansas 89-75

Auburn got to the Round of 32 last year and it went down hard to Clemson. I try my best to not remember that game as I’m sure most of you try to do as well. This time, Auburn was in much better shape health-wise and the way they were playing. Auburn looked to be more like themselves on Friday on the day between the 2 games in Salt Lake City. They looked more relaxed, more like themselves and upon me seeing this, it made me feel really good about Auburn’s chances against the Jayhawks. This was not a classic Kansas team like in years past but still one with plenty of talent on it. But we all knew Auburn had the ability to force turnovers more than most teams and Kansas was a turnover-prone team. Kansas was also prone to slow starts. Both things happened on this night in Salt Lake City and Auburn was off to the races.

Kansas scored first and led for 17 seconds. They never led again.

Throughout the year, it was a really good sign when Bryce Brown made the first 3-pointer he attempted in a game. The sooner he did that, the sooner Auburn’s offense picked up. He did just that.

Jared Harper also made the first 3 he attempted. Harper also did this.

I love when great defense leads to great offense. I also loved how Auburn didn’t let a rare poor possession on defense slow them down on offense.

Auburn held a double digit lead in this game from this point on.

Bryce Brown was on fire in this game. He made 7 3-pointers (5 in the first half) on his way to a 25 point performance. This game put him 2nd all-time in 3-pointers made by a SEC player. And it was all Tigers in the 1st half.

When you see Auburn 51 Kansas 25, you’re probably thinking that somehow this was the final score of a football game between these two schools. And yet, that was the score at halftime of this game. I was speechless and so were so many people around the country. It was one of the best halves of basketball Auburn played all year long. It was so good, I’ve included the full highlights for the half below for you all to enjoy.

The Tigers were on point both offensively and defensively and put themselves in fantastic position to make the program’s 1st Sweet 16 since 2003. Harper and Brown combined for 31 points and the Jayhawks faced their largest halftime deficit in the NCAA Tournament, ever. But if Auburn could do this in a half, so could Kansas and that had to be the mindset in the second 20 minutes of the game.

In the second half, Kansas came out on fire making their first 7 shots of the half. The problem for Kansas: Auburn scored on 6 of their first 8 2nd half possessions. The defense for Auburn wasn’t great in the second half but Auburn scored enough to never let Kansas get back into the game and the 14 point final margin was nowhere near how this game played out. It was all Auburn. It was one of those games that Auburn fans rarely get to see, a game where there’s little stress and a lot of fun was had that Saturday night both in Salt Lake City and back here on the Plains as Toomer’s Corner was promptly rolled following the game.

Jared Harper had 18 points, Chuma Okeke scored 12 but one of the unsung heroes in this game was Anfernee McLemore. He had 11 points and 5 rebounds and only committed 1 foul against a bigger Kansas team. With the win, Auburn was going to the Sweet 16 feeling good and full of confidence manhandling a Kansas team. Auburn would come home and get ready for one of the biggest challenges of the year. How would Auburn fare in their trip to Kansas City? Come back tomorrow for Part 4 to see how Auburn’s journey became even more improbable and how Auburn overcame heartbreak on their way to the biggest stage in college basketball.