Nashville, Tenn.--Cranking up their defensive intensity in the second half after trailing by 10 points at intermission, the Auburn Tigers advanced to the third round of the SEC Basketball Tournament with a 66-59 upset victory over the Texas A&M Aggies on Thursday.
The Tigers advance to a round three game on Friday vs. an LSU team that has received two byes based on its strong regular season, which included a loss to Auburn in Baton Rouge and a win at Auburn Arena. Tipoff is scheduled for approximately 2:30 p.m. CDT at Bridgestone Arena.
Auburn forced 19 turnovers and hounded A&M’s star point guard Alex Caruso into 10 of those miscues in dealing a major blow to the Aggies’ NCAA Tournament hopes.
“You have to point to the second half defense on why we won this game,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “Jordon Granger started it off with a steal and a dunk and after that we did a good job of guarding their stuff, and they run great stuff.”
Auburn held the Aggies to 26.3 percent shooting in the second half after they made 54.2 percent of their first half field goals.
“Our guys haven’t quit and they are being rewarded for that now,” said Pearl, whose team had lost six consecutive games to close the regular season. Auburn’s record improved to 14-19 while the Aggies dropped to 20-11 after losing a game they really needed to win as an NCAA Tournament bubble team.
“Yesterday’s win was for our fans, our former players and everybody who hung in there and didn’t quit on us,” Pearl said. “This one was for our players.”
Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy agreed with Pearl that the start of the second half was when Auburn took control with its defense that forced 19 turnovers for the game. “You’ve got to give Auburn credit,” he said. “They got going a little bit and their confidence was better than ours.”
Pearl said Auburn’s players did a good job of preventing the Aggies from throwing the ball inside to their post players, which was the source of many of the Texas A&M turnovers and credited defensive coordinator Chuck Person with helping come up with the game plan to defend the Aggies.
Texas A&M out-shot the Tigers 42.6 percent to 34 percent from the field and out-rebounded Auburn 38-35, but the aggressive Tigers outscored the Aggies 20-5 in the points off of turnovers statistic and held an 8-4 edge in fastbreak points.
Auburn has been one of the top teams in the country in getting to the foul line and that was another key vs. Texas A&M. Auburn shot 38 free throws vs. the Aggies and made 24 while the Aggies were 14-21 at the foul line.
The Tigers also helped their cause by making eight three-pointers led by K.T. Harrell, who was 4-6 behind the three-point line on the way to scoring a game-high 25 points.
Cinmeon Bowers added 10 points and led the Tigers in rebounds with eight. Jordon Granger added seven rebounds plus five points and won praise from Pearl for his defense on Jalen Jones, who was 2-7 shooting.
K.C. Ross-Miller scored eight points and dished out four assists in just 17 minutes after getting into early foul trouble. Malcolm Canada played 23 minutes at point guard and scored seven points, dished out three assists and added three steals.
The Tigers took the early lead, jumping ahead 10-4 with the help of treys by T.J. Lang and Harrell. AU’s biggest lead came at the 16:18 mark on a layup by Bowers.
Auburn then hit a cold streak with its shooting allowing the Aggies to take the lead at 13-12 on a jump shot by Jalen Jones at the 10:40 mark. Texas A&M built the first half lead to as many as 11 points at 29-18 on the way to a 33-23 margin at the break.
Halftime Numbers: Harrell led all scorers with 14 points, but no other Tiger got going offensively. Bowers scored four points in the period, Lang added three and Antoine Mason scored two points. Davonte Fitzgerald, a sub who hit all three of his shots in the half, led the Aggies in scoring with seven points.
Shooting was the big issue for the Tigers in the first half as they hit just 7-25 field goals for 28 percent while A&M made 13-24 for 54.2 percent. Auburn was 3-12 on threes and 6-10 at the foul. A&M hit 5-9 threes and both of its foul shots.
Auburn turned the ball over just four times in the half, three fewer than the Aggies, who held a 19-13 rebounding advantage at halftime.
Auburn outscored the Aggies 16-1 prior to the first media timeout of the second half at 15:42. The Tigers did it with good defense while nailing 6-8 field goals, including all four of their three-pointers. A three from the wing by Canada put the Tigers back on top.
K.C. Ross-Miller drives vs. Alex Caruso.
The Tigers steadily increased their lead even though they cooled off with their shooting. They outscored the Aggies 43-26 in the second half and built the lead to as many as a dozen points with 1:52 to play.
Granger said Auburn’s ability to hang tough on the boards with the bigger Aggies was a key to the victory. “It was a very tough thing to do because we are small as a team, but we just wanted it more even though they (Texas A&M) played hard.”
Granger noted that their head coach “ripped us out a little bit” with his halftime talk and said he wanted to make a big early play after halftime, which happened with the immediate steal and dunk.
“Defense won this game for us,” the junior forward said. “In nine of Texas A&M’s 10 losses they scored under 64 points. We had to keep them under 60.”
Worth Noting, Part 1: Freshman guard T.J. Lang said “rebounding and defense” were the points of emphasis with the coaching staff, who were on the game plan with the players on Thursday morning following the Thursday night win vs. Mississippi State.
Worth Noting, Part 2: Senior guard Antoine Mason, the nation’s leading returner scorer from last season, said the win over the Aggies was a display of the power of defense. “If you play good defense, you give yourself and chance to win,” he said.
Talking about the second half surge, Mason said, “We just didn’t want to go home. We have been done so long we didn’t want to finish on bad terms so we gave it all we have got.”