Turnovers, missed free throws, and a poor defensive performance were too much to overcome against a more talented auburn team.
In the first matchup, Austin Wiley dominated us inside which opened up the perimeter for them in the second half. We countered by running more zone, using a bigger lineup, fronting, and double-teaming him this game. It worked to an extent, we limited Wiley to just 2 points, but unfortunately we didn't defend the perimeter and they shot 55% from 3 point range and ended up with 5 guys in double digits.
We jumped out to an early 8-2 lead, but then got sloppy with the basketball. We simply are not a good passing team at times. The Tigers quickly erased the lead and then Dazon had to go to the bench with 2 early fouls. I thought we should have used AJ in relief more than Corban. Although Corban did end up with 17 points, he was only 3 for 10 from three point range and was a huge liability on defense. He just didn't have the quickness to keep up with or close out on auburn's guards on the perimeter, and when he did he rarely got his hands up. There was one particular transition play that stands out in my mind, the auburn guard was barreling down the lane, out of control, Corban was in position to take the charge but instead continued to back up and gave up and easy "and one." I think AJ could have at least pestered their quick guards a little more.
After falling behind by 9 points we finished the first half on a run to go into the locker room only trailing by 2 at halftime.
I thought we stuck with the zone a little too long in the second half. Every time we got within striking distance they would hit a couple of 3s. A lot of their 3s were well defended, but as a shooter it's easier to make a contested shot after you've already seen a few uncontested ones go through the net. We let them get into a rhythm and could not break it.
Bruce Pearl did us a huge favor by taking the air out of the ball with a 15 point lead and around 5 minutes to play. I really think they would have run us out of the gym if they kept running their offense. Instead, it gave us a chance to re-group and broke auburn's momentum. In the final moments, we saw why this auburn team has underachieved this year. They put on a clinic on how to blow a lead, turnovers, fouls allowing us to score with the clock stopped, and failure to secure defensive rebounds. At one point we had a 6-0 run without them getting the ball across half-court. In retrospect, perhaps we should have started pressing earlier and more often, but we didn't have much success with it after the rare made free throws and auburn is an athletic team that wants to play at a faster pace, so I understand the reasoning behind not doing so.
We made a furious comeback and cut the lead to 4 with about a minute remaining, and had auburn trapped in the corner. I thought they got away with a push off to beat that press, and Riley got called for a blocking foul at the other end. That pretty much ended any realistic chances at a miracle comeback.
On the bright side, I thought the team played hard and never gave up. We out rebounded them 47-28. Dazon had a good game with 16 points despite his foul trouble. Key scored 17. Unfortunately, our poor free throw shooting returned as we were only 13 of 22. Riley was an atrocious 1 for 10 from 3 point range.
I know this won't be popular, but I think we are being a little too harsh on Coach Johnson for this loss. I know we don't like being swept by our so-called "rivals," but they are the more talented team right now despite their record, and more importantly they present some serious matchup problems for us. While I may have made some slightly different decisions as noted above (playing AJ more than Corban and abandoning the zone earlier) I'm not sure it would have made the difference in this game. I understand what Coach was thinking and it wasn't a bad game plan, auburn was not a good three point shooting team coming in. They made nearly twice as many as their average.
With the loss, any slight hopes we had of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament are now gone. It would take wins in our next two games to have a chance of getting into the conversation, and that's about as likely as me having a threesome with Kate Upton and Emily Ratajkowski.
The game was a sellout, and there were only a handful of empty seats in the lower levels. My row was actually full for the first time this year. There were maybe 800 or so auburn fans mostly up in the corners and scattered throughout. The crowd was loud and into the game for the most part, but I was a little disappointed that close to 60% began filing out with still 5 minutes remaining. They almost missed a great comeback.
The halftime show that most came for was incredibly lame. The team was not even present. They brought out the trophy, Coach Battle and the SGA folks from each school gave the standard, "we compete hard but do great things for the state, sportsmanship, yada-yada canned speaches, Coach Saban appeared briefly on a pre-recorded video, then the band played the fight song, which the auburn SGA representatives didn't even bother to sing. It's long past time we retire this stupid "tradition."
Up next, we go on the road to play the top team in the SEC and the nationally top 20 ranked South Carolina Gamecocks in Columbia on Tuesday at 5:30 CT. I know this sounds crazy, but I think we actually match up fairly well with them and expect a competitive game. It will be televised on SEC Network.