Observations: Texas A&M 83, Auburn 78
Auburn played well enough on offense to win most games. But a defense wrecked by a massively lopsided foul count was just too much.
PG Wendell Green Jr. (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Bruce Pearl looked up at one of the giant scoreboards inside Texas A&M’s Reed Arena and shook his head.
Almost across the board, the stats all favored Auburn or were pretty close: Field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage, rebounds, second-chance points, turnovers, points in the paint.
But the biggest number on the board — a final score of 83-78 — favored Texas A&M. One of the other stats was really lopsided: Texas A&M went 31-39 from the free-throw line. Auburn only attempted 14, hitting nine of them.
“It’s hard to overcome 31 free throws,” Pearl told The Observer in College Station, leaning back in a chair at the scorer’s table.
For Auburn, Tuesday night represented a massive shift from last Saturday, when the Tigers could only scrape together 43 points in a loss at Tennessee. In College Station, Auburn had one of its best offensive games of the season.
But the end result, in the grand scheme of things, was similar. It was another chance at a Quadrant 1 victory that would have been huge for its NCAA Tournament resume. And it was another road loss to a quality opponent that came by single digits.
The Tigers have now lost four Quadrant 1 road games — USC, West Virginia, Tennessee and Texas A&M — by a combined 14 points. Three of those have come in the last four overall games.
For Pearl, the current skid during a brutal part of the schedule is a sign that his team isn’t far off from where it needs to be. But it can’t seem to put it all together when it needs to the most.
“We’re right there,” Pearl told the Observer. “We’re close. It tells you how dedicated these kids are. It tells you how locked-in they are. It tells you how they’re paying attention to the scouting reports.
“It doesn’t matter that we’ve lost a couple in a row. It doesn’t matter. They get to the next play. They get to the next practice. And they compete. I’m proud of them.”
Here are four Observations from Auburn’s loss in College Station, along with the Rotation Charts, Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
SG Zep Jasper (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
The free throws were huge, but you’ve ‘still gotta guard’
It’s obvious that Texas A&M shooting 25 more free throws than Auburn was the biggest reason the game ended up the way it did. Auburn had fewer turnovers than Texas A&M, hit seven more shots from the field and hit three more 3-pointers. Usually, that’s enough to win a game.
Instead, Texas A&M won at the charity stripe. The Aggies went a ridiculous 24-27 from the line in the second half alone, which is nearly three times the amount of makes and attempts that the Tigers had for the entire game.
To his credit, Pearl didn’t criticize the officiating or use the free-throw disparity as an excuse after the game. He simply pointed to the fact that Texas A&M hit seven of nine field goal attempts from the 7:43 mark to the 2:09 mark in the second half. Texas A&M went from trailing by multiple possessions to winning by multiple possessions during that stretch.
“We just didn’t get stops in the second half,” Pearl told The Observer. “You score 78 points in here, you shoot 58% in the second half — that’s more than enough offense to win.”
The final three of those made buckets, which all came right in a row, were courtesy of Texas A&M big man Julius Marble.
With Johni Broome having to play with four fouls in the final minutes, the Aggies went right after the Tigers’ rim protector and tried to get yet another whistle. Broome tried to defend without fouling, which naturally made it easier for Marble to wrap up what would be a 20-point night.
“You’ve got to front the post, and you’ve got to play, regardless of the fouls,” Pearl told The Observer. “I understand that they went at him, but we’ve still gotta guard. We didn’t impact the ball-screen enough.”
Two of the four highest-scoring performances allowed by Auburn this season now belong to Texas A&M. Tyrece Radford didn’t go crazy this time, scoring only 10 points, but fellow guard Wade Taylor IV scored 22 and hit four 3-pointers.
Auburn has had a hard time defending without fouling this season, currently ranking No. 312 nationally in opponent free-throw rate. Texas A&M is also the nation’s No. 4 team in free-throw rate, so a big number from the Aggies wasn’t out of the question.
But that big of a gap is just not normal. And it didn’t help that the Aggies got into a free-throw frenzy at the worst times for the Tigers. When Allen Flanigan was hit with a technical foul after hitting a 3-pointer to go up by 10 with 4:41 left in the first half, Texas A&M responded with a 15-2 run. Five of those first seven points were on free throws.
“It absolutely (swung momentum),” Pearl said. “Allen knocked down a three and had done something. I thought he celebrated. He was celebrating. You're allowed to celebrate. I guess they must've thought his celebration was unsportsmanlike.”
When the fouls felt like they were evening out early in the second half — after Texas A&M shot 12 free throws to Auburn’s one — Auburn was called for six fouls in less than five minutes. And when both teams were in the bonus, it was heavily weighted toward the Aggies:
Still, Pearl didn’t point the finger at the referees. He pointed it at himself and the rest of the team, as the Tigers were just unable to string together stops.
“Our second-half defense let us down,” Pearl said. “We fouled them too much. It didn't matter if we were playing man or playing zone, we just couldn't find a way to keep them off the foul line.”
Let’s talk about that late-game possession
Even more crushing for Auburn was that when the Tigers were able to pull off back-to-back stops in the final minute, they were unable to capitalize on them.
After a tie-up gave Auburn the ball down by 2 with 49 seconds left, Auburn tried to run an offensive set. The action wasn’t working, though, and Pearl called a timeout to set something else up with 36.7 seconds left.
Here’s what happened.