KT Harrell celebrates Auburn's win over Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament
By Charles Goldberg
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- This one, said Bruce Pearl, was for the fans, the former players, the people who stuck with him and Auburn even when things weren't going well.
Auburn's 74-68 win over Mississippi State the Southeastern Conference Tournament's opening game Wednesday did more than snap a six-game losing streak this season, or give the Tigers their first tourney win since 2009.
It was about rewarding the loyalists in Pearl's first season, which now sports a 13-19 record. Auburn advanced to Thursday's 2:30 p.m. game in Bridgestone Arena against Texas A&M, which is 20-10 and beat Auburn twice in the regular season.
It was about scoring leaders and unsung players, including walk-ons, who contributed. It was about K.C. Ross-Miller scoring 21 points and KT Harrell scoring 19 more and Alex Thompson scoring 16.
"How often in tournament play is it just someone you're not expecting? Well, tonight, it was about four guys that you weren't expecting from us," Pearl said.
Auburn had lived to play another day, and it meant something to Pearl, the man who started Auburn's tournament losing streak in 2009 when he was the coach at Tennessee, and the man who put an end to it in his first season at Auburn.
"When you receive more support than you deserve..." he began. "I go to bed every single night really wanting to show more progress for Auburn basketball this year on the court. I've just not been able to do it, so it bothers me.
"This game was not for the team. This game was for our fans. This game was for our former players at Auburn who probably figured we're struggling down the stretch and this season is probably over. But I've told them, 'This team has not quit.' This game was for our lettermen, for our former players. This game was not for our players and coaches. This was for everybody that have supported us."
Ross-Miller matched his career high. Thompson hit six of his seven shots. Harrell, the SEC scoring leader, scored more than his season average.
And then there were the guys who didn't fill up the box score, such as walk-on Devin Waddell, who played 16 minutes of hustle and came up big in the closing minutes. And T.J. Lang, who was asked to play defense, and did.
"It's just guys you're not expecting to make those plays," Pearl said.
"We don't win without Devin," Harrell said.
Pearl was not afraid to change, not even with the game on the line, not even when some of his starters watched the final minutes from the bench while lesser-known players finished the game.
"We went with that lineup that was defending and rebounding. We felt like those guys were playing well," he said.
Harrell said the seniors have been "trying to lay this foundation here, Coach Pearl is going to turn this program around and just be a part of history. It means a lot. But we're not satisfied, we want to keep going and stay here a little bit longer."
It was an uneven and close first half. Harrell hit a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to cut Mississippi State's lead to 36-34. Auburn turned the game in its favor at the start of the second half. Auburn was up 44-40 with 15:26 remaining, then 48-41, then 50-43.
Auburn led by 11 with 11:37 remaining.
Then, suddenly, it was 59-59. And State took a 61-59 lead.
A Thompson 3-pointer gave the Tigers a 1-point lead with five minutes remaining. State answered to retake the lead. But the Tigers kept coming back.
"It feels amazing," Harrell said. "You lose a lot of close games, a lot of tough ones, and when you finally get to pull it out, especially here in the tournament, it's an amazing feeling."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine