One of the best offensive showings of the season in the first half, a 10-point lead going into halftime and Houston’s best players getting in foul trouble were all serious advantages for the Tigers in their second-round matchup with Houston (32-3, 17-1 AAC). Despite that, Auburn went ice cold from everywhere in the second half and is once again out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round, falling to the Cougars 81-64.
“In the second half they did everything they needed to do offensively. We couldn't guard them,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl. “They scored 50 points in the second half. That's why they won.”
Houston was back to full strength with Marcus Sasser starting the game and scoring a quick nine points right out of the gate before finishing the night with 22 points on 7-for-14 from the floor, including 5-for-9 from downtown, with his last make being the dagger.
Sasser was not alone on the offensive end despite fellow guard Jamal Shead going just 2-for-8 from the field. Houston found the scoring from sophomore Tramon Mark. Mark, who averages 9.6 points per game, had his best game of the season, scoring 26 points and racking up nine rebounds.
Behind the play of Mark and other guards, Houston was able to dominate the rebounding battle, winning it 45-34, including 17-13 on the offensive glass.
Despite all of that, Auburn led at halftime.
It was as good of a first half as Auburn could ask for. After falling behind 15-10 going into the first media timeout, the Tigers went on a 31-16 run to close the first 20 minutes, taking a 41-31 lead into the locker room.
The lead was never any larger than that as Houston immediately began chipping away in the second half and it was 43-40 within the first few minutes.
“At halftime, you know, we made a couple adjustments. I don't think anything major. I think the biggest adjustment was in our attitude. Sometimes that's the most important thing,” said Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson. “I was almost glad it was Auburn's ball first. Because I thought we needed to set the tone with a stop. And then just play the way we've played all year.”
The Cougars ended up making 50% of their shots in the second half, including 40% from 3-point land, but the difference came on the other end.
“Second half we missed box outs. They got offensive rebounds, second chance points, and they lined us up and drove us and got some mid-range shots. They were able to knock down their mid-range shots,” said senior forward Allen Flanigan.
Flanigan finished with 10 points and nine rebounds, but he went just 1-for-4 in the second half.
After shooting over 55% from the floor in the first half, including 45.5% from downtown, Auburn’s offense evaporated in the second half. The Tigers managed just four makes on 24 attempts in the final 20 minutes, with nothing coming from beyond the arc, and went 15-for-26 at the free throw line.
“In the second half we drove it downhill and sometimes we got fouled and sometimes they blocked our shot,” Pearl said. “In the first half we had much more purpose driving it, passing it. We didn't share the ball in the second half.”
It was the worst second-half of the season for the Tigers, and it ultimately cost them the season as Houston was able to chip away at the lead before breaking it open in the final minutes. Auburn went over 10 minutes without a made shot.
Auburn’s season has come to an end, and now for Bruce Pearl, it is time to go back on the recruiting trail, but perhaps not time to go back to the drawing board.
“I'm proud of this team. But if you know me, I'm on to the next play. And I'll be recruiting tonight,” Pearl said. “ If it's not broke, don't fix it. What we do works.”
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