Observations: Alabama 90, Auburn 85 (OT)
In an extreme microcosm of the season, foul trouble and another rough "fourth quarter" undercut the Tigers' shot at a huge win.
SG K.D. Johnson (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For the first 30 minutes of game time, it looked like it was going to be the biggest possible win for Auburn basketball in a frustration-filled season.
But, after the final 10 minutes of regulation and five additional overtime minutes, it ultimately looked like a microcosm of that frustration-filled season.
Auburn led Alabama by 17 heading into the “fourth quarter” Wednesday night in Coleman Coliseum. The Tigers needed to close out one of the nation’s very best teams — and one that was just a win away from an outright SEC title.
The Crimson Tide’s explosive offense went on a run. That was always going to happen. But five stretched to nine. Then that nine gave way to a controversial sequence that saw two Alabama players ejected but a loose-ball foul called after video review on Auburn center Johni Broome. The foul would be his fifth, ruling him out for the rest of the game.
That nine went to 10 for Alabama on the ensuing free-throw trip, then it grew to 16 unanswered points. Auburn only led by one at that point, and it would claw its way back to a 4-point lead with 2:36 left.
Alabama immediately answered with a 3-point play, then it took its first lead of the game on another free-throw line trip. Allen Flanigan would tie the game back up with under a minute left, and his late stop gave way to a last-second situation for Auburn.
The Tigers held for the last shot, but Wendell Green Jr. — who hit multiple big buckets after the Tide’s long run — couldn’t get a mid-range look to fall.
Then in overtime, away from home, Auburn lost Flanigan and Jaylin Williams to their fifth fouls in two consecutive possessions. A shrinking-in-size lineup that lost Dylan Cardwell to an apparent sprained ankle in the dying minutes tried its best to hang in there, but the absences were too much.
Instead of celebrating a rivalry upset to remember and a virtually punched ticket to the NCAA Tournament, Auburn walked off the court with Alabama getting ready to cut down the nets.
“Boy, these kids have been through an awful lot,” Bruce Pearl said afterwards. “"To come in here and play the best team in the country and play so well, play so hard… My starting frontline fouls out. Johni Broome fouls out with like ten minutes left to go in the game. … And then Dylan Cardwell goes down with an ankle (injury) — my most physical player.
“So, we were just incredibly outnumbered there at the end.”
An uneven foul count when it mattered the most and a second-half defensive slump in a winnable game — these are two issues that the Tigers have dealt with most of the season.
So it seemed like a cruel twist of fate for Auburn to lose in that fashion Wednesday. It undercut a potentially historic shooting night in a hostile environment, and it leaves Auburn still searching for that signature win to lock up its trip to the Big Dance.
“Look, we're probably going to move closer to the edge. I just don't know how (the Selection Committee is) going to respond,” Pearl said. “Who we play and how well we played, it does matter in the NET. It didn't used to quite matter as much.
“A team that can come here and give them the best game they've had all year here, that's a pretty good team.”
C Johni Broome (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
Another close loss where the whistles were a huge storyline
Alabama had cut Auburn’s lead to eight points with 7:58 left when Williams tried to lob it down to Broome on a mismatch in the post.
Jahvon Quinerly came over to intercept the pass, and Broome got his hand caught on Quinerly’s side as he fell to the ground. Quinerly then threw the ball off of Broome, which prompted a small scuffle on the baseline.
Broome was called for his fifth foul — he was called for three earlier in the second half in less than two combined minutes of action — on the play. Quinerly and Green both got called for technicals. Alabama lost its rim protector in Charles Bediako, who was ruled to have left the bench with Rylan Griffin, due to ejections.
But Auburn lost its own rim protector and its best overall player in Broome.
From the moment that Broome fouled out, Alabama hit 8 of its next 15 shots from the field, went to the free-throw line 10 more times in the game and ultimately outscored Auburn, 32-19, the rest of the way.
“He’s our starting center,” Pearl said. “Probably shoots the fewest number of free throws of any center in the league, and he's in foul trouble every game.”
(To Pearl’s point: Broome didn’t shoot a single free throw Wednesday night. Williams only had two attempts. Brandon Miller and Quinerly combined for 20 themselves.)
After Broome fouled out, Auburn was called for five of the final eight fouls — and each of the last four. Auburn led by three points before that stretch, and Alabama hit six of the seven free throws from those fouls. And, in overtime, Auburn was called for five more fouls.
Look, it’s no secret that Auburn’s defense fouls a lot. That’s been an aspect of Pearl’s defenses for most of his time on the Plains, and it’s just a fact of life at this point in the season.
But the Tigers have felt for most of the season like they should be drawing a similar number of fouls and free-throw attempts. Auburn was called for nine more fouls than Alabama on Wednesday night and shot seven fewer free throws.
Auburn has now lost six road games this season by single digits. In those losses, the Tigers have been called for 48 more fouls than their opponents — an average of eight per game.
And those opponents have shot 57 more free throws, too, in games that were ultimately decided by a combined 21 points. Those differentials, for reasons both self-inflicted and controversial for the Tigers, go a long way in telling the story of the season.
SF Allen Flanigan (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)