AUBURN, Ala. — There have been several constants this season for Auburn basketball — excellent second-half play at home, comebacks from big deficits in SEC play, and scoring surges from Bryce Brown.
While Bruce Pearl’s No. 8 Tigers didn’t have the latter Wednesday night, the first one almost led to the second one in a thrilling 81-80 loss to Texas A&M. Leading scorer Brown — who sustained a right shoulder strain on a failed dunk attempt — didn’t see the floor after the 3-minute, 27-second mark in the first half, when the towering Aggies were starting to pull away from the Tigers.
But Auburn rallied all the way back from a 17-point second-half deficit, leading for a short period in the second half. A back-and-forth game in the final minutes virtually ended with a controversial blocking call with 2 seconds left on Auburn and a free throw from Texas A&M’s Duane Wilson.
“We’re disappointed, because we felt like if we could’ve executed a little bit better, could’ve defended a little bit better, we could’ve still won the game despite the fact Bryce was out and Jared [Harper] was in foul trouble in the first half — which really set us back,” Pearl said.
Auburn was led in Brown’s absence by fellow sophomore guard Mustapha Heron, who had 15 of his 28 points in the second half. Sophomore point guard Jared Harper, who missed a chunk of first-half minutes with that foul trouble, added 7 points and 6 assists after halftime in the comeback effort.
Heron missed a clean-but-deep look at a potential game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.
“I think we definitely showed some heart, some character tonight,” Heron said. “We definitely battled back.”
FINAL: Texas A&M 81, No. 8 Auburn 80. Mustapha Heron's heave comes close. The Tigers fall for only the first time at home and the second time in SEC play. pic.twitter.com/dwCxVcgFkW
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) February 8, 2018
Ultimately, Texas A&M’s dominance in height and length in the first half overcame Auburn’s determination and grit in the second half. The Aggies finished with 33 rebounds to the Tigers’ 22 and produced 42 points in the paint.
Texas A&M had three starters taller than Auburn’s biggest starter, 6-foot-7 center Anfernee McLemore. The Tigers felt the disadvantage without 6-foot-10 center Austin Wiley, who was ruled ineligible for the entire season, and 6-foot-8 forward Danjel Purifoy — who hasn’t played at all this season with his own eligibility issues.
“From a size standpoint and a physicality standpoint, we really missed Danjel and Austin today,” Heron said. “Like, we really missed them today. This is one of those games that we really needed them. But this is something that we learn from going forward.”
Auburn also turned the ball over 14 times, some happening in crucial situations.
“I thought if we could’ve turned them over 16 times, we could beat them,” Pearl said. “But we didn’t take great care of the basketball. We didn’t execute well enough for ourselves offensively. And we had some breakdowns ourselves defensively, and they obviously hurt us on the boards.”
Texas A&M also was efficient from beyond the arc, hitting 9 of its 18 attempts from 3-point range. One of those 3-pointers came in crunch time off an Auburn turnover, and it gave the Aggies a late 6-point lead. Auburn finished the game with only 7 made 3-pointers on 21 attempts.
“We lost the game because they scored 81 points, they shot a great percentage, they got the ball inside and they beat us,” Pearl said. “The calls at the end didn’t lose us the game.”
The Aggies were led offensively by guard T.J. Starks, who had 23 points. Three other Aggies scored in double digits . Tyler Davis also starred with 15 points and 8 rebounds.
For Auburn (21-3 overall, 10-2 SEC), it was just short of what would’ve been its sixth double-digit comeback win in SEC play. The Tigers now have just a one-game lead over surging Tennessee in the conference standings, but their win in Knoxville earlier this season makes it a virtual two-game advantage.