Auburn’s test against UConn on Wednesday featured plenty of highlights for the Tigers — just not enough in the final moments.
The Tigers forced double overtime against the Huskies to open the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, but the Auburn offense went cold in the final minutes to let UConn slip away with a 115-109 victory.
The defeat was a disappointing one for the Tigers, which rallied in the final minutes of the second half after UConn maintained a double-digit lead for most of that time.
“[UConn] wound up beating us the way they are going to beat a lot of teams, and that’s rebounding,” Pearl said. “We had a chance to rebound and miss and secure a win, and we just wouldn’t.”
UConn (5-0) and Auburn (3-1) traded shots from the field to open the second overtime before the Huskies got going and couldn’t be stopped.
After UConn’s Tyler Polley and KD Johnson traded 3-pointers, the Huskies rattled off nine unanswered points. Polley connected on another 3-pointer, Adama Sanogo delivered a layup, Polley connected on two free throws and Sanogo connected on a one-on-one layup.
By the time Auburn point guard Wendell Green Jr. ended the scoring stretch with two free throws, the Tigers were on the ropes.
That, however, didn’t seem to faze any of Auburn’s players.
Auburn trailed by nine with 52 seconds left in the second overtime before Zep Jasper hit a pair of free throws and a UConn turnover allowed Jabari Smith to draw a shooting foul. Smith’s free throws were soon after by two from UConn’s RJ Cole; 14 seconds later, Smith drew a foul on a 3-point attempt to go back to the line.
The freshman delivered several clutch moments in Wednesday’s game, and this moment was no different. Smith nailed all three of his free throws, creating a four-point contest with 22 seconds left.
Auburn got its last great chance at yet another rally after Smith’s third and final free throw.
UConn’s in-bound pass wound up going out of bounds, giving the ball back to Auburn with 20 seconds to work with. Smith got the ball and fired off a 3-point attempt, but the shot fell off the mark and the Huskies came down with the rebound.
From there, the Tigers could do little but ride out what remained of the instant classic.
Smith ended the game with 22 points on 4-of-13 shooting and six rebounds.
The Huskies’ late heroics came after Auburn worked its way out of sure trouble in the first overtime.
UConn was in position to drain the clock and force Auburn to foul when the UConn ball handler lost control of the ball, which sent it right to Johnson. Johnson, who had delivered several crucial plays in the second half and in overtime, decided his best bet was to hold onto the ball and do the work himself.
Trailing 95-93 with less than 10 seconds to go in overtime, Johnson raced down the court and delivered the tying layup with 3.2 left on the clock. The Auburn defense held firm after UConn’s in-bound, which sent the game to a second extra session.
Johnson ended the game with a team-high 27 points on 7-of-16 shooting and five steals.
“I’m just trying to do anything to get a W,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to focus on anything that I have going; I was just trying to get a win.”
The final seconds of regulation saw both teams with a chance to walk away victorious.
Johnson’s successful free throw gave Auburn a two-point lead with 33 seconds left in the second half, but that advantage didn’t last long. After Cole hit his first free throw, the Huskies managed to rebound the second attempt and get the ball to Polley, who fired off a 3-pointer to push the Huskies back on top with 14 seconds to go.
Rather than call a timeout, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl let his offense remain on the floor and make something happen.
Luckily for Pearl and the Tigers, Johnson justified his coach’s decision.
Johnson raced down the court in the second half’s final seconds and delivered the tying layup with four seconds remaining. UConn was unable to connect on a late shot to steal the win, which meant overtime was now on the menu.
Auburn led by 11 with just over 11 minutes to go until halftime when UConn found its footing and got going offensively.
The Huskies rode hot 3-point shooting back into contention by hitting three consecutive shots from deep followed by a Jordan Hawkins layup to erase Auburn’s lead entirely. As it turned out, Hawkins was only getting started: the freshman hit three of his next four shots — with all three makes being from 3 — over the next six minutes to help UConn pull ahead.
The Huskies maintained control for most of the second half, though the Tigers showed flashes of righting the ship just minutes after the halftime break.
Auburn sputtered out of the locker room with four quick turnovers, but the Tigers fought through the early second-half issues. The Tigers rattled off seven of the game’s next eight points with just under 14 minutes to go in the game, with none bigger than Devan Cambridge’s 3-pointer to cut UConn’s lead down to eight.
The Huskies remained in control well into the second half until Smith, Johnson and their teammates hit their stride in the final six minutes of regulation to make things interesting.
Sanogo led all scorers with 30 points to go with six rebounds. Cole and Polley each had 24.
Auburn returns to the court at 1:30 p.m. CT Thursday to face Loyola-Chicago. While Pearl was understandably disappointed in Wednesday’s result, he expressed his appreciation for what the moment meant for his Tigers.