NMSU passes up tying layup, falls short in thriller

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- New Mexico State junior A.J. Harris had the game-tying basket all to himself. He sprinted the length of the floor, blitzed past two Auburn defenders and saw an open layup in front of him with only three seconds remaining in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

But Harris passed up the layup, which ultimately led to a painful defeat.

"I had the open shot," Harris admitted after the Aggies' stirring comeback came up just short in Thursday's 78-77 loss to Auburn. "I felt like Terrell Brown was going to hit the 3."

Brown took Harris' pass at the elbow, about 5 feet beyond the 3-point line, and was fouled by Bryce Brown while shooting. He missed the first free throw, made the second to pull his team within one, then saw the third rim out.

New Mexico State got another possession with only one second left, after Auburn lost the rebound out of bounds. But Trevelin Queen's 3-point attempt from the corner came up empty, sending the Tigers into the second round.

"I have trusted my guys to make great decisions, and we have," Aggies coach Chris Jans said. "We've won a lot of games just like this game unfolded. We've won a lot of games where the ball was in A.J. Harris' hand or Terrell Brown's hand and the clock was running down and we made the final shot. ... I trust my players, players make plays, and it didn't work out for us this particular time."

Auburn was ahead by seven with less than a minute remaining but made a litany of mistakes to put itself on the brink of elimination -- committing two turnovers, fouling a 3-point attempt, failing to secure a key rebound, then letting a shooter get free for the potential game winner.

The Aggies, who won a program-record 30 games this season, lost for the 15th consecutive time in the NCAA tournament, extending the longest losing streak in March Madness history.

Asked if he would watch the replay of Harris' pass, Jans said, "I won't watch it today or tomorrow, but at some point I will get over this and put myself back together and sit down and watch it. It will be hard, I'm sure."

Despite passing up that shot, the Aggies would have taken the lead had Brown made all three free throws. At one point, J'Von McCormick -- big off the bench again, especially after Jared Harper got into early foul trouble -- wrapped two hands around his neck to give Brown the choke sign.

"I saw in his face he was pretty scared," McCormick said. "We knew coming in they were a bad [free throw-shooting] team, so that was the key."

Auburn, coming off its first SEC championship since 1985, has won nine in a row since a Feb. 23 loss at Kentucky and appears to be playing its best basketball. Heading into NCAA tournament, Pearl told his team that the opening game would be its toughest, largely because of its hectic schedule.

The Tigers morphed back into the team many expected in the second half, capitalizing off extra possessions and draining nine 3-pointers -- but they nearly fell apart at the end.

Pearl had a good reason.

"We were exhausted," he told ESPN. "This was our fifth game in eight days, and you could tell. Jared Harper just didn't have anything left to get himself open to handle the basketball. We didn't execute. As a result, we opened the door."