Bruce Pearl said it best after a wild ending in Salt Lake City: “Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good."
For Auburn fans, the last minute of Thursday’s first round game against New Mexico State was excruciating. The Aggies just wouldn’t go away, and with 1.8 seconds to play, had a chance to steal a 12-over-5 upset win.
However, the Tigers came out on top, 78-77, holding off New Mexico State’s upset bid. Charles Barkley and Auburn fans can sleep peacefully tonight.
But man, were the closing moments of that game wild.
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Auburn led by 12 points with about seven minutes to play. For the Tigers, all seemed good.
And then things started happening. The Aggies slowly started chipping away at the deficit, cutting it to five points with 50 seconds to play.
A Johnny McCants free throw at the 45-second mark cut the Auburn lead to four points. What followed? New Mexico State’s Trevelin Queen got a steal and then knocked down a three-pointer from the parking lot to put the Aggies within a point with 29 seconds to go.
Auburn then knocked down two free throws to extend the lead back to a full possession, but then Jared Harper, the Tigers’ second leading scorer, sent Aggies’ guard AJ Harris to the line and picked up his fifth foul of the game. Harris hit one-of-two.
It was the first time all season that Harper had fouled out, adding to the late-game woes for Auburn. In the final 24 seconds, the Tigers coughed up three turnovers.
The Tigers still led by two points and were heading back to their own charity stripe with 12 seconds to play. J’Von McCormick swished both foul shots, pushing the Auburn lead to four points.
But the Aggies weren’t dead yet. Four seconds later, JoJo Zamora knocked down a deep three-pointer. With eight seconds to go, just one point separated the No. 12 and No. 5 seeds in the Midwest Region.
New Mexico State quickly fouled again and Auburn’s Samir Doughty hit one-of-two shots. Six seconds remained and the Aggies had the ball, trailing by two points.
Here’s where the game got really ridiculous. Harris took the inbounds pass and sprinted up the floor. Auburn’s defense parted like the Red Sea. The open layup was there, but the Aggies wanted the win. Harris passed up the shot and threw a dart-like pass out to Terrell Brown, who fired a three-point attempt. It missed, but an Auburn foul on the shot attempt sent him to the line with 1.8 second left and the chance to win.
He missed the first. The chance to win was gone, but an opportunity to tie and push the game to overtime remained. He made the second. But the third was off the mark. Still, the Aggies grabbed the offensive board and Queen quickly fired up a shot.
The Tigers let out a sigh of relief as the Aggies’ prayer fell short.
For Auburn, Harper led the way in this game with 17 points and four assists. The Aggies were powered by 16 points, seven rebounds and two steals from McCants.
One of the reasons why New Mexico State was able to hang around for so long is because the Western Athletic Conference champions absolutely dominated the rebounding battle, winning on a 39-24 margin. What hurt the Aggies were 16 turnovers and seven crucial missed free throws.
Auburn moves on to face the winner of Kansas and Northeastern. It would be beneficial to the health of Tigers fans if that game didn’t end as close as this one.
Mitchell Northam is a graduate of Salisbury University. His work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, FanSided, USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times. He grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and is now based in Durham, N.C.