MINNEAPOLIS — Bryce Brown didn’t want his career to be over. That was the only thought going through his mind.
It didn’t matter that he had only scored three points or missed five of his six shots through 35 minutes. Auburn trailed Virginia by 10 points with 5:22 remaining in a national semifinal, in the program’s first appearance in the Final Four.
“I’m a senior. I had to come through for my team.” Brown said. “I felt like, those last few minutes, my team needed me most. I had to be there for them.”
Brown sunk three 3-pointers over the next three-plus minutes. He pulled up from the left wing to hit the first, then point guard Jared Harper found him in the right corner for the next two. The last one gave Auburn a 12-0 run and a two-point lead — the team’s first since early in the second half.
Had there been even a few more tenths of a second on the game clock, Brown firmly believes he might have had a chance to square up and knock one more down at the final buzzer, even after Kyle Guy put Virginia on top with three free throws.
But he only had six-tenths of a second. The shot — a contested, spinning, midair heave from just beyond the arc — came up short. Brown’s college career ended with him sitting on the court inside U.S. Bank Stadium just feet away from where an elated Cavaliers team celebrated a 63-62 victory that sent them to Monday’s national championship game.
That career should be remembered as one of the best in Auburn men’s basketball history.
Saturday’s loss came in the 131st game (97th start) of Brown’s four-year career, which is the second-most games played in program history. The senior scored 12 points against Virginia, giving him 1,673 for his career. That total ranks eighth, behind only Chuck Person, Mike Mitchell, Wesley Person, Eddie Johnson, John Mengelt, Ronnie Battle and Chris Morris.
The jerseys of four of those players — Chuck Person, Mitchell, Wesley Person and Mengelt — hang in the rafters at Auburn Arena, along with those of Rex Frederick and Charles Barkley. Brown has made a case to one day join them.
In terms of individual accomplishments, Brown is a two-time All-SEC selection, including a first-team AP honor after his junior season last year. He’s the best 3-point shooter in program history, having made a single-season 141 this season (33 more than Lance Weems’ mark of 108) and 382 in his career (120 more than Wesley Person’s mark of 262). Only one player in SEC history (Tennessee’s Chris Lofton) has made more.
In terms of team success, Brown — along with classmate Horace Spencer — is part of second-winningest senior class in program history (85-52) and was either the leading or second-leading scorer on the 2017-18 and 2018-19 teams that accounted for two of the program’s five conference championships, one of its two NCAA tournament regional final appearances, and its only Final Four berth.
“Bryce Brown is a two-time champion in the SEC. He got Auburn to its first Final Four. And here he is, grateful to Auburn, when we should all be so grateful to him,” head coach Bruce Pearl said. “What is he worried about? He’s worried about the fact that the season is over, and that he can’t keep giving to Auburn. I’d say he’s grown up a lot.”
Those achievements are incredible when you consider where Brown came from. He wasn’t a blue-chip prospect destined for college stardom. He was a three-star recruit ranked 369th in the country in the Class of 2015. Pearl loved him as a prospect when then-assistant coach Harris Adler first pointed him out, but the Tigers didn’t even have a scholarship to offer him — it had already been extended to four-star Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native Jacob Evans.
Had Evans picked Auburn instead of going to Cincinnati, Brown would have ended up at Charlotte.
"I told Bryce and his family in August, I said, 'I don't think we're going to get Jacob, but I'm not going to pull the offer. Would you consider waiting a little while and see how that thing plays out? Because I promise you, if he doesn't take it, I want you to take it,'" Pearl said. "Bryce had agreed to not sign with anybody else until we were able to let him know what we were going to do, and a few weeks later I offered him that scholarship."
It wasn’t an instant success story. Brown came to Auburn a 6-foot-3 dead-eye outside shooter — thanks to years of training with his father, Cedric, that continued through his college career — and a standout on-ball defender, but emotionally, Pearl said, he was “a little spoiled and immature.”
There were times where he pouted or sulked during games, or got into it with coaches during practices. There were times when coaches punished him by making him run sprints. There were times when coaches punished him by making his teammates run sprints.
Auburn won seven more games in his second year on campus compared to his first, going from 11-20 to 18-14, but Brown made less of an impact on that team, averaging 2.6 fewer points a game (7.5 compared to 10.1) in 3.6 fewer minutes (21.1 compared to 24.7).
"I felt like I wasn't heading down the right path to be able to change the program, and that's part of what I wanted to do when I got here; help change the program," Brown said. "I had to start growing up, and things had to change if I wanted to get to where I wanted to get to as an individual or if I wanted to get to where I wanted to get to as a team. I knew I had to change for the good."
He did. Brown was one of the focal points of the team during his junior and senior campaigns, both as a producer and leader. He averaged 15.9 points in both seasons, finishing just behind Mustapha Heron in 2017-18 and just ahead of Jared Harper in 2018-19. His shooting percentage jumped from 40.1 percent to 43.7 percent, and his 3-point percentage from 38.2 percent to 41 percent.
His career is over now, but it it should be remembered as one of the best in Auburn men’s basketball history.
“That’s what hurts the most; that I won’t be able to wear this jersey again,” Brown said. “Hopefully I had a huge impact on this program, because this program has definitely changed my life to the fullest. Not only in basketball, but as a man, as an Auburn man. I’ve grown, I’ve matured and I’m just happy that Auburn gave me the opportunity to wear this jersey and be a great player.
“Hopefully, I’ve done enough."