The Auburn Tigers became the centerpiece of an electric March moment which captures the attention of a nation — even if for all the wrong reasons.
Auburn had been beating the New Mexico State Aggies by 13 points with just over 6:30 left in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday afternoon in Salt Lake City. The Tigers lost focus for brief periods of time but still led by seven points with 57 seconds remaining.
Auburn’s Jared Harper tossed in a bunch of 3-pointers on Thursday. He is a lightning-quick point guard who should always be able to lock down possessions with his ball-handling. Auburn might not score, but Harper should be a safeguard against turnovers and quick giveaways which fuel an opponent’s comeback.
Naturally, this being March — the Maddest month of all — Harper slipped out of bounds after catching an inbounds pass. He committed a player control foul on a clear strong-arm discard of a New Mexico State defender. (He had two timeouts left and should have called one instead of trying to push through the defender.) Harper also fouled when Auburn led by three with 14 seconds left, clearly not in Bruce Pearl’s plan.
When your lead ball-handler commits three enormous gaffes in the final minute, well, that’s March. New Mexico State didn’t give up the ship when down 13, and it earned two chances to win the game in regulation: with 1.7 seconds left at the foul line, shooting three free throws trailing 78-76; and then down 78-77 on the inbounds pass. A wide-open left-corner three.
New Mexico State missed two of the three foul shots. The Aggies missed their open corner three.
Auburn technically won and advanced to Saturday’s second round.
In truth, Auburn avoided losing more than it won.
The biggest picture of all: In March, no one really cares… and no one should.
Do you think North Carolina State fans cared in 1983 that opponents from Pepperdine to UNLV to Houston all failed to perform in the final minutes, especially at the foul line?
Do you think that Texas A&M fans cared about Northern Iowa’s collapse in the final 35 seconds in 2016?
Do you think that Illinois fans cared about Arizona collapsing up 15 with four minutes left and up by eight with one minute left in the 2005 Chicago Regional final?
The NCAA Tournament is the most fragile organism in American sports — it is a single-elimination tournament just like the NFL, but with 18- and 19-year-olds playing, which creates a level of uncertainty far greater than the NFL, where you know Tom Brady will succeed if given the chance. Tennis has single-elimination tournaments, but you know that guys named Djokovic, Nadal and Federer will be there — at least one of them — in a title match at an important tournament.
March Madness is fragile on another scale. Auburn tasted this fragility and lived to tell about it.
That’s simply what this sport is in all times and seasons, but especially in March, when all eyes finally tune in and watch college basketball in America.
There should be no guilt about getting away with a horrible final minute. The opponent has to make the final shot and complete the final play. New Mexico State did not. Auburn survived.
This was not a very Auburn basketball outcome in a broader historical context.
Auburn is one of several have-nots in the SEC, a program which has very rarely known prosperity and has not been able to forge a long-term marriage with happiness.
How significant is this Auburn win in the present tense? Try this: Auburn has won NCAA Tournament games in consecutive seasons for only the fifth time in school history, and for the first time since 2000.
The five instances: 1986 (following 1985’s win), 1987, 1988, 2000, and 2019.
Bruce Pearl has become the third coach in Auburn history to win NCAA Tournament games in consecutive seasons. Given his SEC Tournament title, Pearl joins Sonny Smith as the only other Auburn coach to win an SEC Tournament AND win NCAA Tournament games in consecutive seasons.
Auburn’s season of struggle and frustration has morphed into something very different in March: a season with a championship trophy and another NCAA victory.
What makes this win over New Mexico State even sweeter is that it occurred in the face of what certainly feels like the NCAA’s attempt to mess with Pearl, one of its least favorite people.
Come on — the NCAA could not have been less fair to Auburn if it tried.
Auburn was a 4 seed a year ago. No. 4 seeds are generally supposed to be geographically protected. I can accept that not every No. 4 seed can be protected, so when Auburn went to San Diego last year, I chalked it up to lazy bracketing.
All right, fine. We can give the NCAA the benefit of the doubt there.
But then came this year as the follow-up.
Auburn played four games in four days at the SEC Tournament. Its tournament final was on a Sunday. The Tigers — as a reward — were shipped to Salt Lake City.
They were given a Thursday-Saturday site, not a Friday-Sunday site, meaning a short turnaround. Their game was the first game of the day, a MORNING tip-off at the location of the game (11:30 a.m. Mountain time in Salt Lake City). Their opponent, New Mexico State, was placed close to home. It was as though the NCAA was setting Auburn up to fail.
Auburn fans wouldn’t find that the least bit surprising.
Auburn fans definitely shouldn’t care that AU got a little — or a lot — lucky. It’s almost as though this was the fates’ way of lifting the Tigers over the NCAA’s idiotic bracketing.
Is this a sign that Auburn’s meager basketball history is receding more fully into the past? Is this a sign that the future — either in this NCAA Tournament or in future seasons (if not both!) will be even richer for Auburn basketball?
The answers might depend on how well these Tigers — given a reprieve — learn from the final minute against New Mexico State and apply the lessons March Madness just taught them…
… without the supreme penalty of a loss.
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