No. 5 Auburn was almost a casualty of March Madness but found a way to survive for a 78-77 win over No. 12 New Mexico State in Round 1.
Terrell Brown had three free throws in the final seconds and could've given New Mexico State the lead, but he only made one. Teammate Trevelin Queen then missed a potential game-winner as time expired.
Jared Harper led the Tigers with 17 points and four assists Thursday to lead the Tigers over a team that had become a popular upset pick. Chuma Okeke added 13 points and five rebounds to secure the victory in Salt Lake City.
Both teams entered the NCAA tournament on incredible hot streaks. Auburn (27-9) had eight straight wins including an SEC tournament title, while New Mexico State (30-5) had 19 straight victories dating back to Jan. 3.
The Tigers kept their streak rolling into the round of 32.
Auburn Shows It's Dangerous with or Without Outside Shooting
This game clearly didn't go as well as it could have, but the Tigers found a way to pull out a win against a quality opponent and remain dangerous in the tournament going forward.
Auburn was all about outside shooting this season, leading the country with 381 made three-pointers on 37.6 percent shooting. Six players hit at least 30 threes.
During Auburn's SEC tournament run, the squad hit at least 12 three-pointers in each of its four wins, making 38.7 percent.
Early against New Mexico State, though, Auburn began just 3-of-12 from three-point range. Bryce Brown struggled with his shot in the early going, but the Tigers found a way to go up 32-29 at intermission.
One of the keys was the work on defense to hold the Aggies in check:
Once the second half started, the Tigers did a better job of attacking the basket and finding success inside:
This opened things up more on the outside as Auburn shot 9-of-19 from deep in the second half, helping the favorites stay in front.
With a defense that forced 16 turnovers and held the opponent to just 28 percent from beyond the arc, Auburn used a lot of different strengths to get the victory. Even with an ugly stretch in the closing minutes, a win is a win.
Teams aren't going to change who they are at this point of the season. Auburn was built to shoot threes, and it will continue to let it fly whenever possible.
However, the players showed with their first-round performance that they can play well even when shots aren't falling.
The Tigers have the talent to beat tougher opponents like Kansas or North Carolina in the next few rounds of the tournament, especially if they get hot from outside. However, showing they can win with an up-and-down shooting day is even scarier for opponents.
New Mexico State's Chris Jans Will Be Hot Name on Coaching Carousel
As teams make coaching changes this offseason, power-conference programs should call Chris Jans.
The New Mexico State head coach took over last year and led the squad to the NCAA tournament, finishing with a 28-6 record. A lot of the success seemed based on the play of senior Zach Lofton, who has spent time with the NBA's Detroit Pistons this year, and Jemerrio Jones, who also graduated.
However, a rebuilt team in 2018-19 looked just as dominant, posting a 30-4 record going into the NCAA tournament with a 15-1 run through the WAC.
The squad used a balanced attack and a slow pace to beat up on opponents throughout the season as Jans did everything he could to get the most out of the players on his roster.
This continued into the NCAA tournament as New Mexico State gave Auburn everything it could handle. Despite being physically overmatched, the Aggies had multiple shots to win in the closing seconds.
The coach put his team in position to succeed, and it was one of the most consistent squads in college basketball.
While recruiting is also a big part of winning at the higher levels, Jans has shown he can create a winning atmosphere in a tough location. A bigger program with a coaching vacancy would be smart to see what it could do to bring him in.
However, there are understandable questions about the 49-year-old's past after he was fired by Bowling Green in 2015 for inappropriate behavior in a bar. New Mexico State hired him in 2017, and the school is now working hard to keep him on staff, calling it the "No. 1 priority." It wouldn't be surprising to see him stick with the Aggies.
Auburn will now face the winner of No. 4 Kansas and No. 13 Northeastern for the right to go to the Sweet 16.