SAN DIEGO (AP) — Nothing about Auburn’s performance was pretty until Jared Harper drained a long 3-pointer with 1:17 to go against College of Charleston.
It was a huge shot, all right, and it allowed the Tigers to stick around San Diego for two more days.
Harper’s tiebreaking 3 — his only basket of the game — helped Auburn beat No. 13 seed College of Charleston 62-58 in a Midwest Region thriller to avoid becoming the second No. 4 seed upset at Viejas Arena on Friday.
Playing under the cloud of a federal investigation into corruption in college basketball, Auburn overcame a horrible shooting performance to win in its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003. But the Tigers survived only in part because they forced Charleston into 21 turnovers.
“This is special and I think our guys appreciate it,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.
Mustapha Heron scored 16 points for Auburn (26-7), which shot only 35.6 percent overall (21 of 59) and just 20.8 percent from 3-point range (5 of 24).
The biggest shot to go down for the Tigers was Harper’s deep 3 that gave them a 59-56 lead. He finished 1 of 7, including 1 for 4 from behind the arc.
“We put him in a ball screen to try to get him the advantage and they went under the ball screen,” Pearl said. “I want those guys to be able to have the freedom to take and make those shots.
“Look, we don’t have a dominating post player,” the coach added. “We get inside off of drives, off of slips and ball screens. We don’t post up. So we better knock down some 3s. That’s our game. We’ve done it all year long and we made enough tonight to win the game.”
The Cougars (26-8) pulled to 61-58 when Grant Riller made one of two free throws with 20.4 seconds left.
Auburn’s Davion Mitchell missed two free throws with 14 seconds to go, giving Charleston a chance. Riller launched a 3 with four seconds left that fell short. He appeared to get fouled but nothing was called.
“I think I got touched, but it’s not my job to worry about foul calls or not, so pretty good defense by him, too,” Riller said.
Said Charleston coach Earl Grant: “I don’t know what happened. I just know we had the right guy with the ball in his hand. Came up a little bit short.”
Harper then made one of two free throws with 3.2 seconds left to seal it.
Earlier on Friday in the East Region bracket at Viejas, No. 4 seed Wichita State was beaten 81-75 by No. 13 seed Marshall. And on Thursday night, No. 4 seed Arizona was routed 89-68 by 13th-seeded Buffalo in a South Region game at Boise, Idaho.
Desean Murray had 11 points for Auburn, and Bryce Brown added 10.
Jarrell Brantley scored a game-high 24 points for Charleston, and Riller added 16.
Charleston scored the last seven points of the first half, including a 3-pointer by Joe Chealey, to pull into a 25-all tie.
Auburn shot 9 of 32 from the field in the first half for 28.1 percent, and missed all 13 of its 3-pointers.
College of Charleston: Champions of the Colonial Athletic Association, the Cougars were making their fifth appearance in the NCAA Tournament and first since 1999.
Auburn: Assistant coach Chuck Person was indicted as part of a federal investigation that cost two of Auburn’s best players their eligibility. Person allegedly accepted bribes to steer players to a financial adviser once they turned pro and allegedly funneled money to the families of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy. Neither played this season.
Pearl has yet to submit to a formal interview with a law firm conducting an internal review of his program. That will presumably come after the season. At that time, President Steven Leath and new athletic director Allen Greene could possibly determine his fate.
“We turned them over 21 times,” Pearl said. “What does that tell you about the effort and the energy by our kids? Because we were struggling offensively and just finding a way.”
Auburn advances to the round of 32 on Sunday and will play the winner of No. 12 seed New Mexico State vs. No. 5 seed Clemson.
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