SAN DIEGO — Auburn basketball wrote as bad of a final chapter to its storybook season as it could Sunday against Clemson, losing by 31 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
But, according to coach Bruce Pearl and his players, it might have been more of an afterword to be overlooked than a sad ending.
“This doesn’t take anything away,” Pearl said Sunday after the blowout loss. “As of Sunday afternoon, there were 20-something teams still playing in the NCAA Tournament, and Auburn was one of them. This is where we want our basketball program.”
The Auburn locker room wasn’t filled with despair Sunday night in San Diego. Players looked disappointed, as is the case with any loss, but answering questions about what the Tigers accomplished in the 2017-18 season kept them positive.
“Of course this doesn’t take anything away, because when you still look at it, we still won the conference,” sophomore small forward Mustapha Heron said. “We would’ve liked to do more, but, no, it doesn’t take anything away.”
Auburn won the SEC regular-season title for the first time since 1999, going wire-to-wire to take the conference crown. For most of the last decade and a half, the Tigers were firmly in the bottom half of the SEC.
The Tigers overcame a preseason bombshell that cost them assistant coach Chuck Person — plus two more staff members — and the season-long eligibility of top players Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy.
“These kids have been amazing us all season long with their toughness, their resiliency, the way they have played together,” Pearl said.
When starting center Anfernee McLemore sustained a season-ending injury in February, a shorthanded Auburn team held onto the conference title while punching its ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.
“We had a great season,” sophomore point guard Jared Harper said. “We had a great run. For it to end like this hurts now, but I’m proud of every single one of my teammates and how far we’ve come.”
For junior power forward Desean Murray, the 2017-18 season was more special because it was his first as an active player for the Tigers. Murray transferred from Presbyterian and sat out the 2016-17 season by NCAA rules.
Even though Auburn exited both the SEC and NCAA tournaments with rough losses, Murray said he loved his first full season on the Plains.
“To come here and be a part of Auburn, be part of this team, be part of this family, be coached by Bruce Pearl, be coached by this staff and have these teammates around me, it was great,” Murray said. “It was great coming here. Nothing is disappointing me right now.
“We came to the NCAAs. We won our first game, we lost the second. Of course, we were expecting to continue to progress, but, I mean, there’s nothing that’s going to put me down on this season. It was a great season. I found more family.”
Auburn’s loss to Clemson on Sunday night exposed the team’s weaknesses down the stretch. The Tigers didn’t have a strong post presence, especially after McLemore’s injury, and it cost them dearly against taller squads.
And Pearl is ready to turn that losing footnote to a championship season into a motivating factor, as Auburn could return its entire squad for the next campaign.
“I have no seniors. No seniors,” Pearl said. “We’re the second-youngest team in the SEC behind Kentucky. I feel good about the foundation of our program. … Tonight was a night like maybe we had in the SEC Tournament against Alabama, especially the second half against Alabama where we just got overwhelmed. Size was a factor and we made mistakes that certainly contributed to Clemson’s success, and that’s on us.
“But it doesn’t take away from the championship season.”