Bruce Pearl and KT Harrell embrace after the Auburn senior leaves the court for the last time for Auburn
By Charles Goldberg
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- KT Harrell says people will remember Bruce Pearl's first Auburn basketball team as the beginning of something big.
"They're going to look back at this year, and they're going to say, 'This is where it started.'"
Harrell and Auburn left the basketball season Saturday, but not before showing what the program may become. Auburn won three games in the Southeastern Conference Tournament before running up against No. 1 and unbeaten Kentucky in the semifinals, where the Wildcats dispatched the Tigers 91-67 in Bridgestone Arena.
It was a game in which undersized and undermanned Auburn played even more shorthanded than usual after pregame suspensions to Jordon Granger, for throwing a punch in Friday's win over LSU, and to leading rebounder Cinmeon Bowers, for "a potential rules violation," Auburn said.
Auburn finished with a 15-20 record, helped with the late-season rally that saw the Tigers win games in the tournament against three higher-seeded teams. Antoine Mason led Auburn with 23 points Saturday, giving him 52 against the mighty Wildcats in two games this season.
Kentucky, now 33-0, rolled on to Sunday's SEC Tournament finals.
Auburn will remember success here, too.
"These guys really wanted to try to do something to lay the foundation and feel like they were part of something that we're going to be building," Pearl said.
"In spite of getting beat 20 times now, these guys never quit. They never fell apart. They continued to buy in.
"So there were four teams left on Saturday... Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia and Auburn. The foundation is laid."
It wasn't an easy season. The Tigers went 4-14 in the SEC in the regular season, only to almost match that league win total with wins over Mississippi State, Texas A&M and LSU in three days here.
But there was a bigger picture to Auburn's season with Bruce Pearl.
"This will be something I'll always carry the rest of my life, and I'll always be part of the family," Harrell said. "I know I'll always a place in Auburn.
"It's been a fun career, and a great way to end it. We didn't go all the way, and we didn't win the championship, but we had so many low points, it's OK. It hurts a little, but it's OK to go out like this."
Pearl took a bigger role than just coach for some players. Mason's father, former NBA standout Anthony Mason, died on Feb. 28. Malcolm Canada has been without his father for years. But he says he would have been proud of how the Tigers finished the season.
"My dad is no longer here with me. 'Love you, Pops, I know you're up there smiling down,'" Canada said. "But for this program, it did so many good things for everybody in this locker room. We founded a brotherhood. I thank Coach Pearl for keeping me around. He didn't have to keep me around this year. He's like a father figure. He's tough on us, but that's part of it. I love everybody on the coaching staff.
He just said we laid the foundation. Just like he appreciates us, we appreciate him. We love him. 'Love you, BP.'"
Auburn started its last game without three players who combined for 82 starts this season: Granger, Bowers and Tahj Shamsid-Deen, who left the season after the fourth SEC game for shoulder surgery.
Auburn started walk-on Devin Waddell in Bowers' place Saturday and played a variety of backups. Still, Auburn stayed closer to the Wildcats than in their first meeting, a 110-75 Kentucky win in Lexington.
Auburn had a tough time in the first half Saturday, but not as tough as the first game. Kentucky jumped out to a 30-4 lead in that one and led 52-26 at the half. The Wildcats led 47-29 at the half Saturday.
Auburn's trouble with the taller Wildcats was the same, however. Harrell, the SEC leading scorer who hit the game-tying 3-pointer that forced overtime in Friday's win over LSU, had trouble getting free in the first half against giant Kentucky. He finished with 13. Canada scored 16.
"For our guys," Pearl said, "we were undersized and undermanned, but we have been that way all along. I'm just proud of the way my guys competed."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine