By Teresa M. Walker/The Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy says he planned to play Elston Turner no matter what. Turns out his senior guard had the same plan, even with his broken left pinkie.
Turner scored 22 points even with some of his left fingers wrapped up in a splint, and the Texas A&M Aggies beat Auburn 71-62 Wednesday night in their first Southeastern Conference tournament game.
“It’s my last year, I’ve got to play with it, no matter what,” Turner said. “My teammates did a great job just telling me to stay composed and to fight through it. That’s what I did; my teammates were the ones that kept me going.”
Turner broke the finger a week ago in a loss to LSU, an injury that kept him from playing last weekend in a defeat at Arkansas to end the regular season. The SEC’s third-leading scorer was questionable Monday, practiced Tuesday and was ready to go Wednesday.
“It’s a little splint,” Turner said. “I put a piece of gauze around it, too, and taped it to my index finger. I put three pieces of tape around it. You can’t really feel it unless somebody throws a 100-mph basketball at you. I’m playing through it and am going to keep playing.”
Texas A&M (18-14) came to the tournament having lost four of five. But the 11th-seeded Aggies drew the SEC’s last-place team in Auburn, and now they will play sixth-seeded Missouri on Thursday night in a matchup of the former Big 12 teams.
Turner said the game will be a battle since Missouri lost 70-68 to the Aggies on Feb. 7.
“They think that they should have won that game, and we think that we’re able to play with anybody in this conference,” Turner said. “It’s going to be a tough test. Missouri’s a great team. They’re an NCAA tournament team. We’ve just got to have our best game of the year. It’s going to take the whole team to do it, not just one or two people. The whole team’s going to have to step up.”
Alex Caruso added 14 points, and Kourtney Roberson and Fabyon Harris had 11 apiece for Texas A&M.
The Auburn Tigers (9-23) wrap up the season losing their last 10 games and now have lost 11 straight in Nashville. Coach Tony Barbee has yet to win a tournament game in his first three trips. Frankie Sullivan scored a team-high 19 points, and Chris Denson added 15 points.
Barbee said before the season he thought this would be his best team yet at Auburn. Asked how he could misjudge his Tigers so much, Barbee said he didn’t and that a team’s record doesn’t indicate why the season turned out this way.
“Just disappointing,” Barbee said. “We had opportunities in more than our fair share of games this year and just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Turner showed no ill effects early from his broken finger. He hit three of his first four shots and had nine points by halftime. The senior guard said after the game his finger did hurt at times, and Kennedy said he thinks Turner got frustrated a bit in the first half.
“They kind of chopped at him two times, but he did a good job of getting his composure and playing through it,” Kennedy said.
The Aggies both outshot and outrebounded Auburn. They hit 44.9 percent (22 of 49) compared to 40 percent (20 of 50), and they had a 9-0 scoring edge off second-chance points while outrebounding Auburn 36-24.
Both teams started shooting the ball well, and Auburn hit three 3-pointers, the last by Noel Johnson for a 13-10 lead with 16:15 to go. Turner answered with a 3 and a jumper to put the Aggies ahead to stay with 15:14 left. That was the start of 15 straight points by Texas A&M, the last a layup by Young for the Aggies’ biggest lead of the half at 24-10 with 11:28 remaining.
Auburn went nearly seven minutes without a bucket before Sullivan ended the drought with a jumper. The Aggies led by as much as 11 down the stretch, but the Tigers scored the last six points to pull within 34-27 at halftime, the last on a fast-break layup by Wallace.
The Tigers kept whittling away at Texas A&M’s lead. When Denson stole the ball and scored on a layup, he finished off the three-point play at the line to tie it up at 47 with 11:16 to go.
“I thought we were going to take the game,” Denson said. “But … defensive lapses really held us back.”
Harris put the Aggies back up 50-47 with a 3-pointer, the start of a 9-2 run capped by a jumper from Roberson to push the lead to 56-49 with 6:13 left.
“We just stayed together,” Roberson said. “Everybody stayed together and we just came as a team and said we have to dig down deep.”
Auburn couldn’t get closer than four the rest of the way, the last when Denson made a three-point play with 33.9 seconds left. The Aggies finished off the win by hitting 11 of 12 at the free-throw line in the final 1:48.