MONTGOMERY — On Thursday, the Auburn High boys found themselves one shot away from tying or taking the lead against Jeff Davis. Despite multiple opportunities, the Tigers never made it happen.
Auburn hung tight with the Volunteers in the Class 7A Southeast Regional Semifinals but could never get past their opponent in a 68-62 loss to Jeff Davis. The game was a frustrating season-ender for the Tigers, which cut Jeff Davis’ game-long lead down to two points or less four times in the third quarter, but never managed to get any closer.
“They’re very physical and very big. It’s hard to say (what made the difference),” Auburn coach Chris Brandt said. “We missed some crucial free throws down the line to try to take the lead and to get it to two (points) several times. It was to the point where they made a few, they got a nice lead right there at the end and I had to foul. It just got to the point where it was back-and-forth, and we didn’t make our free throws and they did.”
The Tigers trailed by as much as 11 points against the Volunteers, but that seemed to be a distant memory after halftime as Auburn sought to take a lead for the first time since scoring the game’s opening bucket. But as much momentum as the team got after buckets from Caden Brown, Eli Elston and Carter Davis cut Jeff Davis’ lead down to one possession again and again, turnovers and poor shot selection never allowed them to get any closer.
After Davis’ layup courtesy an assist from Miles Hunt created a 38-36 score with 1:45 to go in the third, the Volunteers promptly scored six unanswered points to go into the fourth leading by eight.
Auburn produced some big buckets in the fourth quarter in an effort to finally close the gap. The only problem was the Volunteers repeatedly answered every crucial Auburn basket with one of their own.
Hunt delivered a 3-pointer with 4:58 left in the game to cut Jeff Davis’ lead to 52-45, but the Volunteers immediately came back with a layup. After Jayden Buckley came through on a put-back attempt, Haynes hit a jumper 12 seconds later to leave the Volunteers with a nine-point lead.
The Tigers managed to cut Jeff Davis’ lead down to six points in the final two minutes of action multiple times, and a number of missed free throws by the Volunteers kept their hopes alive. However, Auburn’s missed shots throughout that span of time all seemed to all fall in the arms of a Volunteer.
Noah Warren drove into the paint and put up a layup with six seconds remaining in the fourth to cut the Volunteers’ lead to 67-62, but Haynes’ free throw with three seconds left officially ended any hopes of some late theatrics from the Tigers.
Brandt credited Auburn’s ability to keep the game close to his guard-heavy lineup that used its speed to its advantage throughout the second half.
“I went small, and I’ve done this all year and I’ve done it to many teams. When I need to be aggressive and get into a full-court press, I have to take my bigs out. It hurts me as far as the boards and rebounding, but I have to go to quickness and speed,” Brandt said. “It’s been really successful for us, but it hurts us when they’re on the free-throw line and they get the ball back. It’s a gamble that we’ve lived and died with all year, and it just didn’t work out today.”
Auburn’s style of never-say-die play was consistent for the Tigers throughout the contest.
The Tigers were sent scrambling early in the contest thanks to Jeff Davis’ Jakendric Reeves and Sakievian Haynes, who combined to hit three 3-pointers in the game’s first two-and-a-half minutes to fuel an 11-0 run by the Volunteers that put them ahead 11-2. Auburn didn’t panic despite the excellent shooting from Jeff Davis and instead patiently went to work to close the gap.
Elston and his Auburn teammates worked to keep up with the Volunteers in the lead-up to halftime and got as close as two points with 1:33 remaining in the second quarter. However, Zidkijah Edmond’s tip-in and Haynes’ layup before the final buzzer helped Jeff Davis go into the locker room with a six-point advantage.
Elston led the way for the Tigers with 14 points. Warren and Jae Baker each put up eight in the losing effort.
Thursday’s loss served as a bitter ending for this year’s Auburn team, which had five seniors. Brandt said he planned to use the postgame locker room gathering to praise those seniors and also to remind the underclassmen about the challenge that lies ahead for them.
“First I’ll address the seniors, and then after that I’ll just say, ‘This is what it takes to get back. This is where we want to be, but we want to go farther,’” Brandt said.