Observations: Houston 81, Auburn 64
“We had great halves in a whole season. We just never had a great game... We had so much potential. We just never put it together.”
C Johni Broome (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
BIRMINGHAM — Through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, you might have found yourself looking at the scoreboard and thinking that the little numbers that represent the seeds were wrong.
This is a bracket that has already produced the second 1-16 upset in tournament history, a team with a 15 next to its name already in the Sweet 16 and multiple double-digit seeds scoring upsets over former national champions.
And if you looked at the stats during halftime of Auburn vs. Houston on Saturday evening, you might have believed that the wrong team had the 1 next to its name.
Auburn entered the halftime locker room up by 10 points on No. 1 seed Houston, a program that went back and forth with Alabama for the title of best team in America for most of the season.
The Tigers averaged a ridiculous 1.323 points per possession in the first half, scoring on nearly 60% of their possessions and only turning the ball over twice. Houston started hot but was only shooting 34.4% from the field, 25% from deep and 54.5% from the free-throw line.
Yet, 20 minutes of game time later, there was no real evidence of Auburn’s first-half excellence. Final score: Houston 81, Auburn 64. The Cougars were rolling to the Sweet 16, while the Tigers were dealing with a second straight second-round exit.
“We had the No. 1 seed in this region on their heels,” Bruce Pearl said. “And Houston did the things they needed to to get back in the game. But we helped them.”
Getting outscored 50-23 in the second half usually means the winning team was as good as the losing team was bad. That was no exception in Birmingham.
Houston shot 50% from the field, 40% from deep and 100% from the line after halftime. Splits like that are a combination of effective offense and ineffective defense.
The reverse was true for Auburn in the second half: 16.7% from the field, 0% from deep and 57.7% on a whopping 26 free-throw attempts. Houston made adjustments to its aggressive, top-5-ranked defense in the second half, but Auburn did itself no favors with the way in executed.
“I wish it was a 20-minute game instead of a 40-minute game,” Pearl said.
Backup center Dylan Cardwell put it in a big-picture perspective:
“We had great halves in a whole season,” Cardwell said. “We just never had a great game. And you could tell tonight, there is so much potential in this team, we had the chemistry… we had so much potential. We just never put it together.”
For the final time in this 2022-23 season, here are five Observations from Auburn’s loss, along with the Rotation Charts, Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
SF Allen Flanigan (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
What changed when Auburn had the ball in the second half
In the first half, offense was coming free and easy for Auburn. The Tigers had assists (8) on half of their made shots (16) and went a strong 5-11 (45.5%) from deep.
What was even more surprising is that Auburn only had two turnovers. Houston came into the game with the nation’s No. 4 defense, one that’s built on relentless ball pressure and erasing both passing lanes and attack angles.
As Pearl said after the game, Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson most likely came into the halftime locker room and “lit them up” for not playing that way early.
The shooting percentages were quite rough for the Tigers in the second half, yes. But the ball movement numbers — six turnovers to just three assists — spoke volumes.
“They guarded us in the second half like we thought they would guard us all game long,” Pearl said. “They have great athletes. They pressed up on the ball. They made it really difficult for us to run our offense. They extended catches.
“And our execution, our spacing, we just weren't sharp. … We didn't execute, which is not typical. In the second half, with the offense in front of our bench, we typically have put up great offensive numbers. So, give Houston credit for the way they guarded and their physicality.”
Pearl said Auburn “didn’t respond” to the change in Houston’s defensive strategy, saying the inverse of expectations “actually worked to our disadvantage.”
Auburn’s players didn’t think they let off the gas, either. They just got soundly beaten by an elite defense that started looking like one.
“We didn't come into halftime thinking the game was over,” said Wendell Green Jr., who went from a four-assist first half to a zero-assist second half. “I don't think that was the case. They just came out and showed why they're a No. 1 seed. They did that in the second half. They played well. They've got a lot.”
The increased physicality from Houston led to a lot more foul calls. Auburn got into the bonus before the halfway point of the second half and entered the double bonus with 8:22 left.
When the Tigers got into the bonus, they were still up by two. When they got into the double bonus, the Cougars had the lead — but it was a one-possession game.
And while shooting 57.7% from the free-throw line in the second half and 52.8% for the game wasn’t the sole reason why Auburn lost, it played a big factor in being able to keep up with a Houston team that was in rhythm.
“I think we got some pretty good looks,” Pearl said. “There wasn't a ton of panic — maybe a few possessions in the last five or six minutes. Panic meaning we didn't run anything, overdribbled. In the second half, we drove it downhill and sometimes we got fouled, and sometimes they blocked our shot.”
Houston had eight blocks in the second half — four each from Jarace Walker and J’Wan Roberts. The Cougars were either sending the Tigers to the line or making things extremely difficult for them around the rim.
And, on top of that, Auburn found it hard to hit the less-contested looks from anywhere on the floor after halftime.
“Shots weren't falling, and we didn't make free throws,” Green said. “The fouls were crazy, too. … Essentially, they were making free throws the last 10 minutes. We were both going to the free-throw line. They were making them, we were missing them.”