By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn might have come up one point short Wednesday night, losing 81-80 at home to Texas A&M, but it wasn't for a lack of effort.
It wasn't because this team gave up or threw in the towel either. And they could have, especially early in the second half when they fell behind by 17 after discovering at halftime that they would be without their leading scorer Bryce Brown for the remainder of the game due to a shoulder injury.
But that's not who this team is. The Tigers have battled back time and time again, and they did so again Wednesday, taking back the lead, 69-67, with under eight minutes remaining.
"I think we definitely showed some heart and some character tonight," sophomore guard Mustapha Heron said after the game. "We definitely battled back."
However, after Horace Spencer calmly knocked down two free throws to tie the game with 10 seconds remaining, the refs called a blocking foul on Chuma Okeke with three seconds to go, and Texas A&M's Duane Wilson made one of two free throws that proved to be the difference. Heron's last-gasp shot attempt went off the rim as time expired.
The message in the locker room post-game remained positive.
"Guys, I'm proud of you," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told his players. "I'm proud of the way you battled back. I'm proud of the way you trusted each other. It's only one game. Every night is a new opportunity. I love the way you guys are competing. I love the way you're handling adversity.
"You competed like champions, and we're still right where we want to be."
Though Heron missed the last shot, he led Auburn with a game-high 28 points and took over in the second half, playing all 20 minutes with Brown on the bench. It was his sixth 20-point game of the season, and it was the most points he had scored since putting up 31 against Winthrop in November. The two-time SEC player of the week is averaging 22 points per game over his last four games.
"Mustapha Heron was tremendous tonight," Pearl said in his post-game press conference. "He rose up and got on another level, which we know he has. It's just a totally different gear, and that's what separates him from everybody else. He was attacking the basket, getting to the foul line, making shots, and he played 36 minutes."
Fellow starters Jared Harper (13), Desean Murray (11) and Anfernee McLemore (10) also scored in double figures for Auburn, and Brown had seven points before suffering a shoulder injury that forced him out of the game with just over three minutes remaining in the first half.
After the game, Pearl called the injury a "shoulder sprain" and said Brown was pretty sore.
The Tigers (21-3, 9-2) still hold a one-game lead in the SEC standings and will return to action Saturday when they travel to Georgia (2:30 p.m. CT, SEC Network).
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @greg_ostendorf