SALT LAKE CITY — It took less than a minute for Bill Self to voice his frustration Saturday.
“God dang it,” screamed the Kansas basketball coach, his players struggling to get open during an inbounds play in the opening seconds of its NCAA Tournament second-round clash with Auburn at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
If Self only knew what lie ahead, the Hall of Famer might’ve used more colorful language.
The No. 4-seeded Jayhawks’ season was chewed up, spit out and set on fire in an 89-75 defeat to the No. 5-seeded Tigers, a wire-to-wire waxing that brought a car-crash-esque end to a campaign that started with promise, endured turmoil and concluded with a thud.
“They were fantastic,” Self said of the Tigers. “We hadn’t seen an onslaught like that all year, in the first 10 minutes of the game. They rattled us and we didn’t respond very well.”
Things went off the rails almost immediately for the preseason No. 1-ranked Jayhawks.
Auburn, which won its 10th straight, scored 51 points in the opening period, buoyed by a double-take-worthy 26-1 advantage in fastbreak points. The Tigers hit 9 of 17 attempts from 3-point range in the period, with Bryce Brown scoring 17 points and hitting 5 of 6 tries from downtown.
"That," Self said of Auburn's transition total, "shouldn't happen in three games."
The Jayhawks (26-10), meanwhile, hit just 1 of 10 attempts from 3, committed eight turnovers and ended the half on a 1-for-10 shooting skid.
Jared Harper’s floater with two seconds left added insult to catastrophic injury and gave the Tigers (28-9) their 51-25 halftime advantage. It capped the virtually flawless first 20 minutes for the SEC Tournament champions, who roared and soared from start to finish — a thunderous dunk in transition by Harper following a Chuma Okeke rejection of KU leading scorer and rebounder Dedric Lawson set the tone early on, and Auburn never looked back.
To put it into perspective, consider this: Self burned through three of his team's timeouts ... in the game’s first nine minutes.
“The thing about it, it was a bad NCAA rule change when they went from five to four timeouts,” Self deadpanned, “because we could have used more of them.”
The Jayhawks showed the fight of a team with its season on the line after the intermission, connecting on 7 of their first 7 shot attempts and hitting a pair of 3s, but that red-hot stretch only cut a single point off of the lead held by the Tigers, who themselves went 5 of 5 with three 3s during the stretch.
KU later cut the deficit to 18 with 14 minutes left on an and-1 conversion by Quentin Grimes, but that proved to be the group’s last gasp — Brown connected on a wide-open 3, Austin Wiley flushed home a dunk and, after an Okeke pickpocket of Lawson, Malik Dunbar made a layup through contact.
“Certainly it’d be sad if you lost by one or you’re down 26 at halftime, but I thought we didn’t quit. The guys hung in there,” Self said. “We played a team tonight that was— we could’ve played them 10 times and if they played like they did the first 10 minutes it would’ve been a long night for us every time. But we didn’t do enough to make them play poorly at all.”
Auburn got the offensive rebound off the ensuing Dunbar missed free-throw attempt and Wiley converted a layup in traffic to make the advantage a game-high 27.
“You’d rather play teams that are slow, unathletic and can’t shoot, OK, but that’s not what happens in the NCAA Tournament,” Self said. “We played a team tonight that was the quickest team we’d seen all year by far.”
By that point, Auburn fans could confidently finalize their travel plans to Kansas City, Mo. — the Tigers advanced to a Sweet 16 matchup against either No. 1-seeded North Carolina or No. 9-seeded Washington next Friday at Sprint Center, located less than an hour east of KU’s campus.
Deploying a starting lineup with four freshmen and five players that entered this tournament with no experience in March Madness, Self indicated said the pressure of the one-and-done atmosphere is something that had to be experienced to be understood.
“When you see your own blood during the regular season, you have another game to come back to. When you see your own blood in the NCAA Tournament, if you don’t respond immediately to that, then all of a sudden you can get knocked out,” Self said. “We didn’t get knocked out but we certainly staggered and were holding the ropes.”
The Jayhawks were led by a team-high 25 points and 10 rebounds from the junior forward Lawson, whose future — along with that of freshman guard Quentin Grimes, injured junior center Udoka Azubuike and ineligible sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa — becomes the immediate storyline moving forward.
“Well obviously there’s Doke (Azubuike) and Dedric and Silvio are all questions for next year, and certainly maybe other players as well, which we are used to dealing with. That’s OK,” Self said. “The thing about it is, it’s been a challenging year. I thought the kids hung in there and did a great job, for the most part. Their attitudes and everything was terrific. We didn’t muster up enough momentum like some past teams have to probably go on a run like some past teams have.”
Auburn, which was led by Brown’s 25 points on 9-for-13 shooting and a 7-for-11 clip from 3-point range, finished with a 34-8 advantage in fastbreak points and a 13-for-30 total from beyond the arc.
“I got to be honest with you: When I saw Auburn as the five in our bracket, I’m going, I just watched them play and they’re fast,” Self said, “and those teams are the teams we obviously struggle the most against.”
The fact the Jayhawks were never in Saturday’s game did little to soften the blow in the postgame locker room.
Lawson openly wept, blaming himself for the outcome. Mitch Lightfoot delivered monotone answers, staring ahead through red eyes. Devon Dotson, who buried his head in his hands from the KU bench after fouling out in the final minutes, spoke with a voice so soft reporters had to inch their recording devices closer and closer to the freshman point guard’s mouth.
Despite the pain, Saturday — this season, really — wasn't without valuable lessons.
“We just learned how to fight through adversity,” Dotson said. “When things weren’t going right, we tried to fight. But we just, um, tonight, I guess, wasn’t our night.”
AUBURN 89, KANSAS 75
McLemore 4-7 1-2 11, Okeke 4-10 2-2 12, Brown 9-13 0-0 25, Harper 6-14 4-4 18, Dunbar 3-4 0-1 6, Blackstock 0-0 0-0 0, Spencer 0-1 1-2 1, Parker 0-0 0-0 0, Purifoy 0-1 0-0 0, Wiley 3-4 0-0 6, Doughty 1-2 2-2 4, McCormick 2-5 2-2 6. Totals 32-61 12-15 89.
McCormack 5-6 1-1 11, D.Lawson 8-17 7-7 25, Grimes 5-11 3-4 15, Dotson 5-9 1-2 13, Agbaji 1-5 0-0 2, Lightfoot 0-0 0-1 0, Moore 0-3 0-0 0, Garrett 3-6 1-1 7, K.Lawson 0-2 2-2 2. Totals 27-59 15-18 75.
Halftime — Auburn 51-25. 3-Point Goals — Auburn 13-30 (Brown 7-11, McLemore 2-4, Okeke 2-5, Harper 2-7, Doughty 0-1, McCormick 0-1, Dunbar 0-1), Kansas 6-19 (D.Lawson 2-3, Dotson 2-5, Grimes 2-6, Moore 0-1, K.Lawson 0-2, Agbaji 0-2). Fouled Out — Dotson. Rebounds — Auburn 25 (Doughty, McLemore, Okeke 5), Kansas 35 (D.Lawson 10). Assists — Auburn 17 (Harper 6), Kansas 13 (Moore, D.Lawson 3). Total Fouls — Auburn 21, Kansas 17.