Tigers will win when Auburn meets Clemson
| 1 month ago

SAN DIEGO -- The way Auburn coach Bruce Pearl sees it, this NCAA Tournament appearance is not only about his team but also about the SEC.

"You know, we are really proud of SEC basketball right now," Pearl said after a harrowing 62-58 victory over the College of Charleston in a Midwest Region game that was not decided until the final three seconds Friday.

"I've been in this league for 10 years. It's never been stronger, and we feel the responsibility ... winning the regular season championship, to represent our conference. So maybe we are putting a little too much pressure on our kids."

Fourth-seeded Auburn (26-7) will meet No. 5 seed Clemson (24-9) in a battle of Tigers that shapes up as a duel of perimeter threats at the Viejas Arena in San Diego on Sunday for a berth in the Sweet 16 in Omaha, Neb., on March 23.

Like SEC regular-season co-champion Auburn, Clemson knows a little something about conference quality and March success. Clemson tied for third in the ACC while wining a school record 11 conference games in a league that had two No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 in the NCAA Tournament.

The ACC placed nine in the NCAAs and the SEC had eight, and the SEC had the edge after going 6-2 in the first two full days of the tournament. The ACC was 6-4 including Syracuse's play-in victory Tuesday despite the historic loss by No. 1 overall tournament seed Virginia to Maryland-Baltimore County on Friday. The leagues split the first two head-to-head tournament matches, Alabama beating Virginia Tech and Florida State defeating Missouri.

"I know how good Virginia is and it's hard to beat them," Clemson coach Brown Brownell after a 79-68 victory over New Mexico State on Friday, "but I also think it's another example of (how) college basketball has changed in terms of the landscape of talent.

"There are more better players than ever, and the difference between 1s (seed) and 16s has narrowed just like with 2s and 15s and 3s and 14s and all that. I don't think there is a big difference between 5s and 12s, 6s and 13s. I just don't think there is a difference anymore."

Auburn and Clemson were chic picks to be upset in the first round, but only Auburn had much trouble.

Point guard Jared Harper's 3-pointer, his only field goal of the game, broke a tie with 59 seconds remaining as Auburn moved on while shooting 35.6 percent from the floor and making 15-of-32 free throws. Mitigating that, Auburn forced Charleston into a season-high 21 turnovers, about double its average.

Harper made a free throw with three seconds to go for the final point, although the NCAA put out a statement Saturday saying that Chuma Okeke, not Harper, should have been at the line after catching Grant Riller's air-ball 3-point attempt before passing off.

"After the foul the ref pointed at me to go to the line, so I stepped up and went to the line. Simple as that," said Harper, an 82.2 percent free throw shooter.

Auburn was in the double bonus, and the call would have mattered only if Okeke had missed both free throws with a 61-58 lead. Okeke is a 68.6 percent foul shooter.

Auburn has won eight straight NCAA openers, tied with Syracuse for the fourth-longest streak. Only North Carolina (16), Kansas (11) and Gonzaga (10) have more. Guard Mustapha Heron, who led Auburn with 16 points against the College of Charleston, will become the fifth player in school history with 1,000 points in two seasons.

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