SAN DIEGO — Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl was trying to avoid a judgment call late in an NCAA Tournament game, but Bryce Brown delivered one to the officials anyway.
With the Tigers leading the College of Charleston by 3 points at less than 10 seconds left on the clock, Grant Riller rose up for a potential game-tying shot. Pearl wanted an earlier foul.
“As Bryce was working them up I wanted to foul,” Pearl said. “We work on fouling about three or four seconds left before they get the shot off. But I think he may have pulled slightly before then, so it wasn’t at that number.”
Brown contested. Air ball. Auburn rebound, then a College of Charleston foul with 4 seconds left.
The College of Charleston bench, along with its fans, looked bewildered that Brown wasn’t called for a foul of his own.
Should this have been a foul? pic.twitter.com/bx95M4M1O8
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 17, 2018
Auburn’s Jared Harper split the resulting free throws, and the Tigers held on for a 62-58 win to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
In a happy but tired Auburn locker room, Brown was asked point blank — was that a clean shot contest?
“Oh, nah,” Brown said with a laugh. “I didn’t get all ball at all.”
Brown told a different story on his Twitter account, though, complete with an appropriate emoji:
Nope 😁 https://t.co/uj8UoDTYIj
— Bryce Brown (@Bwb_2) March 17, 2018
Sophomore center Anfernee McLemore, who was sidelined with his season-ending leg injury, was quick to reply to CBS Sports’ question on Twitter:
— Anfernee McLemore (@akmclemore) March 17, 2018
Back at the postgame press conference podium outside of Viejas Arena, Pearl said he didn’t believe his top on-ball defender fouled on the game’s most crucial play.
“Bryce challenged the shot,” Pearl said. “I haven’t seen it on film, but Bryce, a pretty good defender, I thought he was pretty vertical. And College of Charleston they kick their legs out on 3s. They draw falls on three-point shooting and I thought our guys did a good job of staying way from that.”
Auburn small forward Mustapha Heron, who had a good view of the contest on the floor, agreed with his head coach.
“One of the best guards in the SEC was guarding him, and you saw what happened,” Heron said. “He forced an air ball and I think he got a hand on it. But Bryce is one of the best guards in the SEC defensively, so he got a hand on that and — game over.”
Riller, the shooter, answered diplomatically.
“About 13 seconds left when I got the ball, kind of wanted to come down and create space and hit a shot,” Riller said. “I think I got touched, but it’s not my job to worry about foul calls or not, so pretty good defense by him, too.”
And although College of Charleston coach Earl Grant jumped, stomped and pleaded for the foul after the shot fell short, he took the high road when discussing the final sequence.
“Well, 13 seconds left, and we had a guy who needed to have the ball had the ball,” Grant said. “I don’t know. I didn’t see the film, you know. We had a big-time crew of referees. Those guys do big-time games. At the end of the day, Auburn played good defense tonight.
“We tried to contest shots hard and I think they tried to contest shots hard. So I don’t know what happened. I just know we had the right guy with the ball in his hand. Came up a little bit short.”
Grant was right. Auburn’s worst offensive performance of the season in terms of points and efficiency was matched by a near-inverse on defense.
Auburn's KenPom efficiency vs. College of Charleston
OFFENSE: 84.4 (33rd out of 33 games this season)
DEFENSE: 79.0 (2nd out of 33 games this season)
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) March 17, 2018
In spite of an offensive game in which Auburn went 0-for from deep in a first half for the first time in 137 games and sub-50 percent from the free throw line for the first time all season, the Tigers were able to advance in the NCAA Tournament with defense.
The Cougars shot just 23 percent from deep and turned the ball over a season-high 21 times, more than doubling its season average.
Even though the final bit of defense might not have been clean, Pearl believed the victory all came down to the heart on that end of the floor.
“You look out there and wonder how from the standpoint of our size and depth, but the kids have a definite resiliency,” Pearl said. “They have a toughness. They’re trying to make history. They’re trying to represent in our conference.”