MINNEAPOLIS — The game wasn’t technically over yet when Jared Harper sunk his first of two free throws with nine seconds remaining Sunday, but that didn’t stop Bryce Brown from kicking off the celebration.
When junior point guard turned around for the ritual high-five of teammates in between foul shots, the senior shooting guard was standing ready to embrace him.
“Best backcourt in the nation,” he said on the court a few minutes later, the piece of net he cut down sticking out of the white “Final Four” hat he proudly wore on his head.
It was hard to argue with him in that moment. Auburn defeated Kentucky 77-71 in overtime to reach the Final Four for the first time in program history. Brown and Harper combined to score 50 of those points.
Both were electric. Brown hit all six of his shots after halftime and finished the game with 24 points, including eight in a 47-second spurt early in the second half that helped the Tigers go from down seven to up three. Harper hit the game-tying layup with 37 seconds remaining and scored 12 points in overtime on his way to a team-high 26.
So, is Brown correct? Do he and Harper make up the best backcourt in the nation?
“Most definitely,” said backup point guard J’Von McCormick, who has had a front-row view of the show that duo has put on this season. “Those guys are hard to guard. They’re very special.
“I haven’t seen anybody as good as them.”
Their numbers this season certainly give them a case. Brown ranks sixth among SEC players averaging 16.5 points a game on a career-best 44-percent shooting (41 percent from beyond the arc) and has made a program-record 137 3-pointers. Harper is just behind him, scoring 16 points per game on 38.5-percent shooting (34.4 percent from beyond the arc) to go along with 5.8 assists a game, a total that is tied for the conference lead and ranks 23rd nationally.
Auburn has averaged 79.3 points a game during its 12-game winning streak, which is the longest active in the nation by three over Michigan State. Brown and Harper have combined to average 32.5 of those, or 41 percent.
That number may have to climb even higher in a national semifinal against Virginia on Saturday (5:09 p.m., CBS), as the Tigers will again be without third-leading scorer Chuma Okeke, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL this past Friday. Brown and Harper showed they're more than capable against the Wildcats, which marked the 13th game this season both scored at least 15 points.
Asked if he had seen a backcourt like Harper and Brown this season, Cavaliers guard Kihei Clark said, “Umm, no, not really.”
“They’re quick and they’re fast and they can really shoot it,” he continued.
Added McCormick: “It’s like Steph (Curry) and Klay Thompson. They just play defense and shoot the 3-ball very well.”
Nationally, though, Harper and Brown don’t really get their due. That’s a theme with this Auburn team. Both were only second-team All-SEC selections, behind first-team guards Tremont Waters from LSU, Breein Tyree from Ole Miss and Quinndary Weatherspoon from Mississippi State. Their names were nowhere to be found on the AP All-America team released Tuesday.
The names of four guards representing the other three teams in the Final Four were — Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston (18.9 points, 7.6 assists a game) made the first team; Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver (18.5 points, 6.3 rebounds a game) made the second team; and Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter (15.1 points, 5 rebounds, 2.1 assists a game) and Kyle Guy (15.6 points a game, 114 made 3-pointers on 46.3-percent shooting) made the third team.
But the greatest strength of the Harper-Brown backcourt is not each of their considerable individual talents, but rather how well they complement each other — Harper is able to get downhill toward the basket maybe as quick as any point guard in the country, and Brown is a dead-eye 3-point shooter who has the ability to get hot in an instant.
“This whole season, this whole year, even before the season, we felt like we’re the best backcourt,” Harper said. “We play off of one another. Not to discredit any other backcourt, because there are a lot of other great backcourts, but we feel like we do a good job playing together.”
It’s still a little crazy to think about, given where they both came from and how they ended up at Auburn. Both are Georgia natives who the University of Georgia didn’t even recruit.
Brown was a three-star ranked 369th in the country. He was set to go to Charlotte, but Bruce Pearl loved Brown when former assistant Harris Adler first introduced him. The head coach didn’t have a scholarship to offer him — it was already out to four-star Baton Rouge, La., guard Jacob Evans — but told Brown to hold off on signing. He did, and when Evans chose Cincinnati, Pearl offered that spot to Brown.
Harper was a four-star guard, but at 5-foot-11, had only three major-conference offers. After seeing him play during his junior season, Pearl asked him if he thought Kentucky, Georgia, Georgia Tech or Florida would offer him a scholarship. Harper told him, “Probably not,” and Pearl asked him to “be my point guard of the future.”
"I promised him, if he came, we probably could be competitive," Pearl said. "Thanks to him and Bryce and several others, we've become competitive.”
Pearl wouldn’t go as far as to say that Brown and Harper made up the best backcourt in the country, but the coach firmly believes they’re on the list. They’ll have the chance to back up their claim on the biggest stage in college basketball this weekend.
“When the season’s over, we’ll determine whether or not they are the best backcourt in the country,” Pearl said. “I think it’s really good to get them on the list. And if they’re not on the list, then you have to ask why. But right now, Virginia’s got a pretty good backcourt. Michigan State’s got a pretty good backcourt. Texas Tech’s got a pretty good backcourt. We’ll go see who the best backcourt in the country is.”