SALT LAKE CITY — The final minute of Thursday’s first-round matchup between Auburn and New Mexico State epitomized just how zany the NCAA Tournament can become.
In the end, the No. 5 seed Tigers advanced to Saturday’s second-round action by beating the No. 12 seed Aggies 78-77.
"I don't want to do that again, though," a hoarse Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said postgame.
There's a litany of reasons why, after the SEC's Tigers (27-9) stayed alive in the NCAA's Midwest Region by leading the WAC's New Mexico State (30-5) for nearly the final 30 minutes of game play while fending off a spirited Aggie rally.
In all, the final minute included:
— Auburn turning the ball over on back-to-back possessions that allowed New Mexico State to get back within a point.
— The Aggies hitting two 3-pointers in the final 30 seconds, both times cutting the Tigers' lead to 1. That included a 3 from Trevelin Queen and another from former Ute guard JoJo Zamora with 6.9 seconds remaining. "We were down and needed a desperation shot. I just shot the ball without hesitation and it went in," Zamora said.
— Auburn staying ahead by connecting on 5 of 6 from the free-throw line, though a miss in the final six seconds left the door open for NMSU to tie or take the lead.
— The Aggies missing four free throws in the final minute after missing only three the rest of the game. That included Terrell Brown missing 2 of 3 — including rimming out the third — after getting fouled on a 3-point attempt with 1.9 seconds to play.
Auburn's J'Von McCormick flashed a choking gesture to Brown during the final free throws. "I saw in his face he was pretty scared," McCormick said. "We knew coming in they were a bad free-throwing team so that was the key."
— NMSU staying alive by getting the ball following the second Brown miss when the ball went out-of-bounds off Auburn.
— The Aggies' last hope being fizzled when Queen, who had a team-best four 3-pointers, missed long on a 3-point attempt on the final possession, sealing the thrilling win for the Tigers.
"We've developed a confidence and a trust in one another and our depth as the season progressed," Pearl said.
Auburn players echoed their coach's sentiments.
"That was a good win even though we didn't play our best," the Tigers' Chuma Okeke said. "We are still advancing — that's all that matters."
After the Tigers' lone free-throw miss with six seconds to play, Aggie guard A.J. Harris drove into the lane with New Mexico State trailing by 2 and appeared to have a shot at a layup, but he kicked it outside to Brown for the 3-point attempt.
"Yes I did. I had the open shot," Harris acknowledged. "I felt like Terrell Brown was going to hit the 3."
New Mexico State coach Chris Jans doubled down in supporting Harris' decision on the critical possession.
"I trust my players — players make plays — and it didn't work out for us this particular time," Jans said.
Auburn turned a 32-29 lead at halftime into a 45-33 lead early in the second half by relying on two things the Tigers have been known for this season: 3-pointers and suffocating defense. Auburn hit nine of its 12 3s in the second half and forced New Mexico State into 16 turnovers.
The Tigers saw their lead expand to as many as 13 points in the second half before New Mexico State — paced by 16 points and seven rebounds from Johnny McCants — slowly chipped away at the lead. After a 7-0 NMSU spurt made it a 6-point game, Jared Harper went around a screen and calmly nailed his fourth 3-pointer to make it 70-61 with 4:30 to play.
Harper had a game-high 17 points while shooting 6 of 11 from the field, 4 of 8 from 3-point range and adding four assists.
"I was able to get a layup early in the second half that helped my confidence, and I think I hit my first 3 to start the second half. Being able to make plays, my teammates trusting me, so that's all," Harper said, when asked how he routinely came up with big shots to counter NMSU plays.
Even with Auburn maintaining its lead, New Mexico State stuck around and finally broke a three-minute field-goal drought with 49 seconds to play — on a Harris fast break layup — to set up the theatrics that followed.
“I'm really proud of our players. A lot of teams would have went away and they didn't. They showed what they're made of. They showed how much character they have,” Jans said.
"Obviously, the next step for our program is to win this game, and go to the Sweet 16 hopefully."Comment on this story
For Pearl, the relief of victory and moving on outweighs any struggles or weaknesses Thursday's game may have shows.
"No matter how many times you practice your spacing and what you want to do in those situations, until you get in that moment, you don't know how you're going to react. We obviously panicked and made our share of mistakes which could have cost us the game," he said.
"At the same time, we made enough really good plays throughout the game against a really good team. That's a really good 5-12 win for Auburn because that New Mexico State team is formidable."