COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Based on the final four minutes of their game on Saturday, Auburn and Texas A&M are teams spiraling in opposite directions springing into the Southeastern Conference tournament.
"You want confidence going into postseason play, and there's nothing that will give you confidence like winning on the road against a very good team like Texas A&M," Auburn coach Tony Barbee said following the Tigers' 69-64 victory over the Aggies in Reed Arena.
A&M (17-14, 8-10 SEC) led 60-59 with 4:05 remaining, but Auburn closed out the scoring on a 10-4 run, started by a Chris Denson layup in befuddling A&M defenders, and followed by a Denson jumper as the Tigers sprinted to the finish line.
"We couldn't guard Denson," a frustrated A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. "And our Achilles heel all season long, besides not having enough bodies and all of those things, has been in late-game situations not keeping people from getting layups."
KT Harrell led the Tigers (14-15, 6-12) with 20 points while Denson added 19, with each guard scoring a dozen points in the key second half.
"We wanted to take advantage of putting (A&M's) big guys out in space on ball screens," Barbee said of Auburn's offensive strategy relying on the playmaking of Denson and Harrell. "Chris and KT are both hard to handle, and when they play for each other and for the team like they did today . they scored and were effective that way, but they were also effective in getting others shots and open looks."
The Tigers snapped a two-game losing streak and won on the road for the first time in more than a month, a 79-74 triumph at South Carolina on Feb. 5. The jobs of both Barbee and Kennedy are reported to be in peril following disappointing regular seasons for each program.
The Tigers, who led 35-34 at halftime, outscored the Aggies 15-9 on second-chance opportunities. Auburn owned a 35-25 rebounding advantage, with 14 of those coming on offense.
"Our post players just got whipped, and they wouldn't step up and make plays defensively," said Kennedy, adding he needs at least "one big guy to step up" with the season nearly at an end.
The Aggies, who saw their five-game home winning streak snapped, closed out the regular season with two consecutive losses. They had hoped to at least make the National Invitation Tournament for their first postseason appearance in Kennedy's three seasons, but that hope now seems farfetched.
"There's no excuse for it, we just didn't play up to par," A&M guard Alex Caruso said. "We got outrebounded in our own house. We didn't play like the team we are, and it showed in the second half."
Caruso dislocated a finger on his right (shooting) hand a little more than midway through the first half while trying unsuccessfully to block a dunk by Asauhn Dixon-Tatum. Caruso, the Aggies' leader, played the second half with two of his fingers taped together. A&M forward Jamal Jones led all scorers with 24 points, but he failed to tally a field goal in the final 13 minutes.
"He's a big-time shooter, but I think he got a little tired, too," Barbee said. "He got worn down down the stretch."
The same appeared true of the shorthanded Aggies, who played seven scholarship players against the Tigers, even while still welcoming back senior guard Fabyon Harris. A week earlier, Harris had fainted during the Aggies' shoot-around, and spent the next two days in the hospital. He was cleared to play late this week, and made only 1 of 4 field goals in the final home game of his college career.
The Aggies also played their third consecutive game without freshman guard Shawn Smith, whom Kennedy said is taking a break from the program for "personal issues." For his part Barbee has had little to smile about of late, but he wore a satisfied grin when strolling off A&M's court on Saturday.
"We hung our heads the last couple of games when opponents made some runs, but we didn't today," Barbee said. "I thought that was the biggest factor."