It’s no secret that Auburn is a second-half basketball team and, to this point, that has been enough; that was not the case Wednesday night.
Texas A&M escaped with a one-point victory on the road, upsetting No. 8 Auburn, 81-80, as Mustapha Heron’s last-second heave came up short at the buzzer, handing the Tigers their first loss at home all season, and only their second loss in SEC play.
The Tigers struggled much of the first half and the Aggies led 46-36 at halftime after shooting 63 percent from the field and making 7-of-11 three-pointers.
““That’s a 30 RPI team," Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. That’s a team that’s got a couple of pros on the inside, got great size, they do a great job of getting that ball inside. “I thought if we could turn them over 16 times, we could beat them but we didn’t take care of the basketball. We didn’t execute well enough offensively, we had some breakdowns defensively and obviously they really hurt on the boards.”
Auburn, who lost its leading scorer Bryce Brown to a shoulder strain in the firsts half, battled back from a 17-point second-half deficit but Texas A&M’s Duane Wilson knocked down a free throw with 3.5 seconds left that eventually sunk the Tigers after Heron’s shot at the buzzer came up short.
“I was really proud of our players the way they battled back,” Pearl said. “With Bryce (Brown) being out we could have folded our tent but we didn’t. This environment was just tremendous.”
The Tigers played the entire second half without Brown, who suffered the injury with 3:27 left in the first half.
Horace Spencer knocked down two clutch free throws with 10 seconds left to tie the game at 80, but on the very next play, Wilson drove the length the court and drew a foul call on Chuma Okeke, who attempted to take a charge. After a lengthy review, the blocking call was upheld.
The Aggies led by 17 with 18:53 left in the game before a 15-6 run cut the lead to single digits. Just minutes later, an Auburn steal followed by Jared Harper’s layup capped a 9-0 run which gave the Tigers a 69-67 lead midway through the second half.
Auburn was led in Brown’s absence by sophomore guard Mustapha Heron who put up 28 points, 15 of which came in the second half. Sophomore point guard Jared Harper, who was out early in the first half with foul trouble, added 13 points and eight assists.
“Mustapha was tremendous tonight,” Pearl said. “He rose up and got on another level, which we know he has. It’s just a totally different gear. That’s what separates him from everybody else.”
Down the stretch, however, Texas A&M’s height and length proved to be the difference in the game. The Aggies out-rebounded Auburn 33-22 and had 42 points in the paint.
The Aggies were led offensively by guard T.J. Starks who poured in 23 points on efficient shooting from beyond the arc. The Aggies were 9-of-18 from the three-point line, while Auburn managed only seven three-pointers on 21 attempts.
Auburn falls to 21-3 overall and 9-2 in the SEC while Texas A&M improves to 16-8 overall and 5-6 in conference play.
Auburn returns to action Saturday at Georgia. Tip-off is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. CT on the SEC Network.