Observations: Vanderbilt 67, Auburn 65
"To win at the end, you have to get stops, and you have to get the foul line. We never even got into the bonus in the second half."
(Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
NASHVILLE — Auburn led by six with 7:58 remaining, but a 10-2 run from Vanderbilt ensured that the Tigers were going down to the wire once again.
Finishing games strongly has been perhaps Auburn’s biggest weakness, with the Tigers’ last four losses and five of their eight defeats to that point coming by single-digits.
Auburn needed to close well in order to get an important victory for SEC and NCAA Tournament seeding purposes, land its biggest true road win to date and get over its late-game blues.
In the final three minutes, Auburn and Vanderbilt went back and forth. Wendell Green Jr. tied the game with a tough leaner. Vanderbilt’s Liam Robbins hit a pair of free throws on the other end. Allen Flanigan hit a difficult shot of his own.
Then Auburn got the stop it wanted, but Green split his free throws after finally getting a call on a drive to the basket. The Tigers failed to get a defensive rebound after another miss, and Robbins was sent to the free-throw line on a foul that was ruled to have occurred before a shot-clock violation.
Jaylin Williams missed a 3-pointer on the other end, and Vanderbilt hit two more free throws to go up by 3. When the hope seemed gone for Auburn, K.D. Johnson hit an ice-cold stepback triple to tie the game.
All Auburn needed to do was get a stop and send the game to overtime. Bruce Pearl decided to put Zep Jasper in for Green and Dylan Cardwell for Broome. Auburn anticipated that Vanderbilt point guard Ezra Manjon would try to drive for the win.
Manjon did — and his layup just before time expired was enough to give Vanderbilt its fifth straight win and hand Auburn its fifth straight loss in games decided by single-digits.
“Put Zep in to pressure the ball, put Dylan in maybe as a rim protector,” Pearl said afterwards. “And we're switching everything. The idea was that (Manjone) would go downhill, so put some size at the rim. And unfortunately, he came with a head of steam. Zep didn't do much to slow him down, and he turned a corner on Jaylin.”
During a season that’s had several of them, Auburn lost another winnable game in the final minutes that were defined by a lack of defensive victories and a lopsided free-throw differential.
Vanderbilt went a perfect 6-6 on free throws in the final three minutes before a last-millisecond foul sent the Commodores to the line one more time. Auburn went to the line just once and went 1-2.
“To win at the end, you have to get stops, and you have to get the foul line,” Pearl said. “We never even got into the bonus in the second half. You win by getting stops and getting to the free-throw line.”
A close road loss to a rising Vanderbilt team isn’t going to take Auburn completely out of the NCAA Tournament picture. But it’ll push the Tigers closer to the bubble with two weeks left in the regular season. In a season of “what ifs,” this loss to the Commodores could be one of the biggest ones.
Here are four Observations from Auburn’s 67-65 loss to Vanderbilt, along with the Rotation Charts, Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
HC Bruce Pearl (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
Another lopsided FTA differential makes a big difference
Like Auburn’s last road game — a loss at Texas A&M — the free-throw differential will be a major talking point.
Auburn shot 10 free throws as a team, going a rough 50% from the line. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, shot 27. Robbins had a career-high 20 free-throw attempts, which means he had twice the amount that Auburn had as a team.
“Liam Robbins was a handful,” Pearl said. “He made three two-point baskets and was 17 for 20 from the foul line. Hard to beat.”
Robbins’ monster night at the free-throw line was a perfect storm of factors against Auburn. Robbins entered Saturday at No. 4 nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes among all Division I basketball players. (He’s now at No. 1.) And Auburn has had a problem with fouling all season long, now sitting at No. 324 nationally in opponent free-throw rate.
Robbins went 3-10 from the field, so it wasn’t like he was a totally unstoppable force on offense. And Vanderbilt, as a team, shot 35.7% from the field and was held to just 20 made field goals.
"Thought we played well enough defensively,” Pearl said. “(We) hold Vanderbilt six below their (points per game) numbers at home. Hold them to 20 field goals. … Three times they were held below 20 (made field goals), and all three were losses.”
Meanwhile, Auburn shot 43.5% from the field as a team and hit seven more field goals than Vanderbilt. It was a bottom-half performance for the Tigers this season in terms of offensive rating, yes, but it still would have been enough to win if it weren’t for all the fouls.
What stung even more for Auburn was that Williams went 7-9 from 2-point range and didn’t attempt a single free throw. Broome went 7-12 and only attempted four free throws — with none of them coming after halftime.
Auburn had 40 points in the paint and just 10 free-throw attempts, while Vanderbilt had 22 and 27, respectively.
Vanderbilt attacked Auburn’s deficiency on defense — a high foul rate — with the single-best player in the country at drawing contact. Robbins living at the free-throw line made a lot of statistical sense, even if every single foul call on him wasn’t clear and obvious.
But it’s the fact that Auburn can’t counter with its own trips to the line, even in a game where the frontcourt shined, that really stings. In its four losses by five points or less this season, Auburn has now shot 49 fewer free throws than its opponents.
And all of that can’t be chalked up to too-physical or too-handsy defense.
C Johni Broome (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)