SAN DIEGO — Bryce Brown had heard the questions for a solid month. Auburn basketball had shot less than 40 percent from the field in six of its last eight games, and Sunday night made it seven of nine.
Sunday was a new low. Auburn shot just 25.8 percent from the field in an 84-53 blowout loss to Clemson in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the first time Auburn had shot below 30 percent in a game. The Tigers missed their last 18 shots of the first half and went nearly 12 minutes without a field goal.
And Brown couldn’t explain it.
“I don’t really have an answer,” Brown said Sunday. “I really don’t know. We worked hard in the gym to make sure we could make shots. But it just didn’t turn out that way.”
For the seventh time in the last month, an Auburn team that could shoot well in practice and pregame shootarounds couldn’t string together any buckets. Bruce Pearl’s Tigers hit consecutive shots just four times against Clemson. It missed at least three straight shots on five different occasions, including the 18-shot one.
Auburn could cobble together some incomplete reasons for the woeful shooting effort. Clemson’s defense, which ranked inside the top 10 nationally in efficiency on KenPom, dared the Tigers to shoot their way out of a slump.
“They defend very well,” point guard Jared Harper said. “It was tough to get to our spots. With that, we’ve still got to make shots. Later in the year, we struggled making shots.”
A team in the midst of a month-long offensive downturn seemed drained of confidence. With the undersized Auburn squad getting turned away at the rim by Clemson’s taller shot-blockers, the long shots had to keep coming.
“I would say I thought they would extend a little more,” Pearl said. “Instead they packed it in. So our guys turned down. I thought we turned down some really good, open shots… And then we put it on the floor and took it into the heart and the soul of the defense, where there was a great deal of length.”
Auburn looked frustrated and disjointed whenever it was in a half-court offense. Clemson’s compact defense wasn’t what Auburn fully expected.
“With only a day to prepare, that’s what they did right away,” Pearl said. “So we have plenty things to be able to take advantage of how clogged the lane was, but we never made the adjustments.”
Pearl still thought Brown, who hit 3 of his 9 attempts from deep, maintained the belief in his shot. Everyone else went a combined 4 for 23 from beyond the arc, with most of them coming off of good, clean looks.
“Bryce Brown was a confident shooter for Auburn,” Pearl said. “But the rest of us weren’t. There wasn’t anybody else out there that was confident shooting the basketball. As a result, we didn’t make a lot of shots that we make all year long.”
Long shots turned into longer rebounds for Clemson. Auburn only had seven offensive boards and eight second-chance points.
As the tough one-and-done possessions piled higher, Auburn looked drained of the shooting confidence that made it an SEC regular-season champion. The stars of the attack — Harper, Brown and Mustapha Heron — pressed too much.
“I think all three of those guys, all three of our best players, kind of — in looking to try to help us win — went and tried to do their own thing sometimes,” Pearl said. “They’ve done that the last month or so. It hasn’t helped us be cohesive offensively.”
In the locker room, Heron said he didn’t think anyone lost confidence in their shots. But he still couldn’t explain how the offensive stars of the team weren’t able to hit consistently and cohesively late in the season.
“I don’t think anything happened,” Heron said. “I don’t really have an answer for that.”
Auburn might not have a clear answer for its offensive collapse now. But over the next few months, the Tigers will learn through self-evaluation.
The past offseason was crucial to a championship run, and Auburn needs to do the exact same thing in 2018. This time, it can tighten its focus on the cold shooting.
“We examined where we failed, and we fixed all the areas that we needed to fix,” Pearl said. “As a result, we had a much better year. We will look at the same thing going into next season — where are the areas we came up short? And we’ll fix it and not get beat the same way.”
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