Three years ago, in Bruce Pearl’s second year with Auburn, his team finished with an 11-20 record along with the second worse record in SEC play.
Flash forward to Tuesday. Pearl and his Tigers lost to a loaded Duke team 78-72, their closest game of the season, and walked off the court in Maui unsatisfied. They expected to win.
Even though Duke had the lead the entire game, Auburn had plenty of chances to come from behind and slay Goliath. Auburn fought back from multiple double-digit leads to stay competitive with the No. 1 team in the nation.
"We fought, but we didn't play well," Pearl said. "We're good enough to have beaten them if we executed the things we wanted to do."
As much as Auburn gets touted as a high powered offensive team, its defense sets it apart. In the first half, freshman phenom Zion Williamson was held to six points on 1 of 3 shooting. No one on Duke's roster eclipsed 20 points for the first time this season.
"There are no moral victories," Pearl said. I'm not interested in any of that."
Auburn managed to keep players out of the paint and force contested shots. Duke shot 25 percent from three and turned in their lowest point total of the season at 78.
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Outside of defense though, Auburn couldn’t put much together. After getting down early because of a cold start shooting, the Tigers played out of character.
They felt that to come back from the deficit they needed to chuck up shots early in the possession to match the speed of Duke on the other end. Contrary to popular belief, Auburn is not a high-pace team; the team only averages 77 possessions a game, which is close to the mean in college basketball.
They force turnovers and run in transition but in the halfcourt, they use most of the shot clock. The bouts of hero ball and lack of passing led to the 4 of 20 start from the field.
In the second half, they settled down choosing to move the ball more effectively and get baskets at the rim. Jared Harper continued his hot stretch in Maui, scoring 22 points off 6-for-10 3-point shooting. Austin Wiley knocked off more rust with a 17-point, 9-rebound performance.
The new problem was fouling. While they played defense at a high level for the most part, at times they got beat off the dribble and hacked away at the ball sending Duke to get free points.
This was also a problem in the Xavier game on Monday when they supplanted most of the Musketeers points with 24 trips to the foul line. Duke got to the line 34 times and came away with 23 points.
Auburn will face the winner of Arizona vs. Gonzaga tomorrow night at 10:30 p.m. CST. The winner claims third place in the tournament.
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