An agonizing, mistake-filled final minute tilted in Auburn’s favor Thursday in Salt Lake City because New Mexico State’s A.J. Harris made a decision more unfathomable than all the rest.
The junior point guard passed up a nearly uncontested game-tying transition layup in the final seconds in order to kick the ball to teammate Terrell Brown spotted up behind the 3-point arc.
Asked by reporters after the game if he knew his team only trailed by two, Harris insisted that he did. He admitted he “had the open shot” but passed to Brown anyway after spotting his teammate alone on the right wing.
“I was trusting my teammate, my partner,” Harris said. “I felt like Terrell Brown was going to hit the three.”
— Mitch Levy (@Mitch_Seattle) March 21, 2019
That controversial choice by Harris paved the way for the decisive sequence in fifth-seeded Auburn’s 78-77 first-round NCAA tournament victory over the 12th-seeded Aggies. Auburn’s Bryce Brown plowed into Terrell Brown on his 3-point attempt with just over a second remaining, but the 78 percent foul shooter could not deliver from the free throw line.
His first attempt rimmed out. His second dropped in. His third went half way down and popped out, leaving the Aggies still down one point in their quest to pull off the NCAA tournament’s first significant upset.
New Mexico State still had one final chance after Auburn lost the rebound out of bounds. Trevelin Queen got a clean look from the corner, but air-balled the potential game winner, dooming the Aggies’ upset bid and enabling the Tigers to advance to the NCAA tournament’s second round, where they will face either fourth-seeded Kansas or 13th-seeded Northeastern.
Winning a game in back-to-back NCAA tournaments is another milestone in Bruce Pearl’s rebuild at Auburn. The Tigers hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2003 when he took over five years ago, but they’ve been among the SEC’s best teams the past two seasons.
For New Mexico State, Thursday’s loss was a bitter end to a 30-win season. The WAC champion Aggies came closer to an NCAA tournament upset than they did the previous year against Clemson, but they still fell just short.
That New Mexico State came within one shot is remarkable considering that Auburn appeared to be in complete control for much of the second half. The Tigers led by as many as 13 midway through the second half and still held a seven-point edge with the ball and less than a minute to go.
It was then that Auburn made a series of mistakes that gave New Mexico State new life.
The Tigers first needlessly inbounded the ball to Horace Spencer, a 60 percent foul shooter who predictably missed the front end of a 1-and-1. On Auburn’s next possession after a Harris layup, Jared Harper slipped and traveled after receiving an in-bound pass in the corner.
Even then Auburn remained up four after New Mexico State’s Johnny McCants split a pair of free throws, but the Tigers weren’t done blundering. There was a panicky Chuma Okeke turnover that set up a 3-pointer from Queen with 29 seconds to go to cut the Tigers’ lead to one. And a needlessly quick foul from Harper to prevent New Mexico State from attempting a game-tying 3-pointer after a pair of Okeke free throws extended the margin to three with 15 seconds left.
Bad as Auburn’s mistakes were, however, they had more margin for error than New Mexico State did.
The Aggies had overtime sitting in the palm of Harris’ hand, but he chose to go for the win instead.