March 12, 2015
Auburn's KT Harrell celebrates on the way to an SEC Tournament win over Texas A&M
By Charles Goldberg
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Uh-oh. Bruce Pearl didn't much like the first half, and said so.
"BP came to the locker room mad," remembered Cinmeon Bowers, "and when he gets mad, it's time to go."
And go is just what the Auburn basketball team did Thursday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, blasting through a second half with clutch shooting and a shutdown defense to surprise Texas A&M 66-59 in Bridgestone Arena. Auburn will play LSU at 2:30 p.m., playing as the surprise guest in the third-round. LSU received a double-bye to the third round of the bracket.
Auburn has the tourney experience right now. Thursday's win was the second tournament victory in less than 24 hours, and that was quite the accomplishment for a program that had not won a tournament game since 2009, and not won two in a single league tourney since 2000.
"Now this becomes the third team in 30 years of Auburn basketball history to win a couple of games and advance in the tournament. Maybe that's not something you want to brag about, but those facts matter to those guys right here," Pearl said.
The Tigers had trouble scoring in the first half, trailing 33-23 at the break. But Auburn stole all of the momentum, the basketball and likely A&M's chance to make the NCAA Tournament with a defense that held the Aggies to two field goals in the first 18 minutes of the second half.
Auburn broke loose with a 16-1 run out of the halftime break riding the hot hand of SEC leading scorer KT Harrell, who scored 25.
He appropriately wears No. 1 on his uniform.
"All things aren't equal when we play, but we've got No. 1, and you don't," Pearl said. "There are times he plays like that on the floor. You look up and say, 'That's a really interesting game. KT Harrell is taking it over, particularly with his ability to score.'"
Pearl said Auburn's first tournament win, here Wednesday against Mississippi State, was "for our fans who have supported us all year long...for our former players...and for the people who didn't give up on us this year."
But the win over A&M was different.
"I told them before the game tonight that this one was going to be for them," Pearl said of his players.
And so the Tigers took over, forcing 19 turnovers and hitting eight 3-pointers. The first six minutes of the second half decided it.
"We just decided to dictate the rest of the game," said guard Malcolm Canada.
Taller Texas A&M had beaten the Tigers by 10 in Auburn, and by 25 in College Station. Auburn found the neutral court of Bridgestone Arena more to its liking. Sure, A&M managed a 38-35 rebounding edge, but the Aggies had outrebounded Auburn by a total of 21 rebounds in their first two meetings.
"That was the best rebounding margin team in the league against the worst team in rebounding margin," Pearl said. "One versus 14. There were 32 missed shots by Texas A&M. We got 27 of those rebounds. It just boiled down to the rebounds."
Game Two here was different from Game One, when an unsung player such as Devin Waddell played tough, and when Alex Thompson scored a bunch of points. Only Cinmeon Bowers, with 10 points, joined Harrell in double figures Thursday. But eight players scored and all 10 who played had at least one rebound.
Harrell hit four 3-pointers, and his three free throws with eight minutes left gave Auburn a 53-43 lead, at a time when Auburn was in the process of outscoring Aggies 30-10 in the second half.
Auburn started fast enough, leading by six four minutes into the game. But the Tigers closed out the first half in the icebox, going long stretches without scoring, and then only breaking the scoring drought with an occasional free throw.
The Aggies flipped the first halfwith a 15-2 run over the middle part of the first half, then continued to run as Auburn fell into a 2-of-17 shooting funk from the field.
A KT Harrell 3-pointer finally stopped that run to cut the A&M's lead to 29-23, but the Aggies finished the half leading 33-23. Harrell had 14 of those.
It was a different basketball game in the second half as Pearl, in his first year at Auburn, adjusted.
"It's not about me at all. It's not," Pearl said. "It's about these kids and just how they're trying to represent. We just want Auburn basketball to be somewhat relevant in the SEC again."
In this tournament, the Tigers have been.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine