Observations: West Virginia 80, Auburn 77
The Tigers' first-half performance was a bad sign for the future. But their second-half comeback could end up being a much-needed spark.
SG K.D. Johnson (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
If any Auburn fan envisioned Auburn basketball’s season started spiraling downward at halftime on Saturday, they probably weren’t alone.
After an overall rough showing in a double-digit home loss to Texas A&M late Wednesday night, Auburn looked like it was heading to a similar fate on the road at West Virginia early Saturday afternoon.
West Virginia scored 45 points in the first half, matching Texas A&M’s pre-halftime total from earlier in the week. Auburn’s offense had little consistency, shooting just a tick above 40% from the field and turning the ball over on a quarter of its possessions.
The Tigers never really looked like they were going to come back at home against the Aggies earlier this week, cutting the lead to eight or nine points before falling behind again. But their rally Saturday, somehow, came earlier in a tough environment than it did in front of their own fans.
Auburn chipped away and chipped away until it got to within a possession with 6:02 left. Johni Broome and Jaylin Williams led the way. K.D. Johnson played some of his best ball of the season. The defense made things much tougher on West Virginia, and the offense was finding a rhythm.
“I thought the togetherness on the bench was the best we've had all year,” Bruce Pearl said. “Guys are really rooting hard for each other. In some ways, we made progress.”
However, the margins between victory and defeat are really slim when you’re a team without a high-scoring option that also needs to be the cleaner squad in the execution department almost every single time.
To that end, Auburn came agonizingly close to tying or even taking the lead on West Virginia on several occasions. But it wasn’t enough, and the home team had a sharpshooter that couldn’t seem to miss.
Auburn’s 80-77 loss at West Virginia on Saturday afternoon should go down more as a missed opportunity than a crushing blow for the season. (The first half looked much more like the latter scenario.)
A 3-point Quad 1 loss on the road won’t look terrible in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and — more importantly — how Auburn played in the second half could be the spark it needs for the final 10 games of SEC play. But the “what if” could rattle around in the Tigers’ heads down the road.
“I think the biggest thing is seeing the difference between the two halves,” Pearl said. “And then recognizing against the teams we're playing, what we're doing doesn't work very well if we don't have great effort and energy. We turned the ball over too much; we missed a lot of shots early. … To win on the road on this against a good team — I mean, they're in the mid-20s in the NET.
“There was a real prize that we missed.”
Here are four Observations from Auburn’s near-comeback in Morgantown, along with the Rotation Charts, Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Day.
HC Bruce Pearl (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
What went wrong in the first half?
On Wednesday night, Auburn raced out to an early lead in front of its home fans. On Saturday afternoon, it got a taste what it was like on the other end of it, as West Virginia went up 10-3 in the first five minutes.
Auburn played evenly with West Virginia in the middle of the second half thanks to some good runs from Tre Donaldson and Dylan Cardwell off the bench, but — like with the Texas A&M game — things went south in the final minutes.
West Virginia hit more than half of its shots from the field, including a 12-20 mark from 2-point range. That went along with a 12-13 mark from the free-throw line, as the Mountaineers got both Broome and Cardwell into foul trouble.
On the other end of the floor, Auburn’s offense was limited to tough makes from the likes of Allen Flanigan (10 first-half points on 3-5 shooting and 4-5 at the line), Williams (6 points on 3-5 shooting) and Donaldson (a pair of tough makes when it looked like Auburn’s offense was on life support).
The execution for the Tigers was sloppy. Auburn clearly had worked on getting Broome rolling to the rim against West Virginia’s trapping defense, but it committed nine turnovers in the first half — with Wendell Green Jr. going down for four of them. The passes weren’t crisp, and the frustration built up into dribble-heavy shot attempts that felt out of sync with the rest of the offense.
“I probably called too many ball screens in the first half, and we did not execute our ball-screen offense when they blitzed us,” Pearl said. “We did not do a great job again on those short rolls.”
Given how the second half went for Auburn, the first half looks extra-brutal in hindsight. The Tigers went to the locker room down by 16, and just marginal improvements before halftime could have put them in a much better position to come back and win.
C Johni Broome (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)