SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – New Mexico State Junior A.J. Harris had the game-binding basket for himself. He ran the length of the floor, blitzed past two Auburn defenders and saw an open layup in front of him with only three seconds left in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
But Harris went up in layup, which ultimately led to a painful defeat.
"I had an open shot," admitted Harris, after Aggies' stirring comeback came shortly in Thursday's 78-77 loss to Auburn. "I felt that Terrell Brown was going to beat 3."
Brown took Harris's pass in the elbow, approx. 5 feet beyond the 3-point line and was destroyed by Bryce Brown during shooting. He missed the first free throw, made the second pull his team inside one, then saw the third run out.
New Mexico State got another possession with only a second back after Auburn lost the rebound outside the borders. But the Trevelin Queen's 3-point corner trial came empty and sent the tigers into the second round.
"I have entrusted my guys to make good decisions and we have," said Aggie's coach Chris Jans. "We have won many games like this game unfolded. We have won many games where the ball was in AJ Harris' hand or Terrell Brown's hand and the clock went down and we made the final shot … I trust my players , players play games and it did not work for us this particular time. "
Auburn was ahead with seven back less than a minute, but made a number of mistakes to slow down elimination – committing two conversions, limiting one 3-point trial, failure to secure a key rebound, allowing a shooter to clear the potential game winner.
The Aggies, who won a program record 30 games this season, lost in the 15th consecutive time of the NCAA tournament, and expanded the longest losing streak in March Madness's history.
Asked if he would like to see the playback of Harris's pass, Jans said: "I don't want to see it today or tomorrow, but at some point I will come across this and put me together again and Put me down and see it. It'll be I am sure about it. "
Despite having shot, Aggies would have taken the lead if Brown made all three free throws. At some point, Von McCormick – out of the bench again, especially after Jared Harper entered early accident problems – wrapped two hands around the neck to give Brown a token.
"I saw in his face he was pretty scared, McCormick said." We knew to come in, they were a bad team, so that was the key. "
Auburn coming from his first SEC Championship since 1985, has won nine consecutively since Feb. 23 Loss in Kentucky and seems to be playing his best basketball. On the way to the NCAA tournament, Pearl told his team that the opening game would be hardest, mainly due to its hectic schedule.
Tigers morphed back into the team many expected in the second half, capitalizing extra possessions and draining nine 3-points – but they almost fell apart at the end.
Pearl had a good reason.
"We were exhausted," he told ESPN. "This was our fifth game for eight days and you could tell. Jared Harper just had nothing left to get him open to handle the basketball. We did not. As a result, we opened the door. "