AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn guard Malcolm Canada stepped to the free throw line for two shots with just 14 seconds remaining Saturday night. With Auburn trailing Xavier 88-87, the senior couldn't afford to miss.
Canada calmly sank both free throws, lifting the hosts to an 89-88 double-overtime win against Xavier.
It was the capper to what was already an unforgettable outing for Canada. His 15 points were a career-high — and the Tigers (5-5) needed every one of them.
Forget about him being nervous, though. That was the furthest thing from his mind.
"You live for it. I was hoping I'd get to shoot those free throws to ice the game," Canada said. "... That's what you dream of as a kid. You've just got to wait your turn."
And it seemed no one was happier for Canada than Bruce Pearl.
"He was a senior that didn't really have a game to hang his hat on. He does now," Auburn's coach said. "He was just a senior that wanted it more than anybody else. We don't win this game without him."
While Canada provided the final points, Saturday night was yet another game that saw multiple Tigers shoulder the scoring load. Senior KT Harrell had a game-high 24 points, which included a number of clutch shots along the way. Forward Cinmeon Bowers had 17 points six rebounds before fouling out in the first overtime. With Antoine Mason scoring 12, the Tigers improved to 5-0 this season when four or more players break into double-digits.
Pearl said he never doubted his team could win Saturday. What he wasn't sure about was what to say if they came out on the losing end after 50 minutes of play.
Harrell echoed that, saying he didn't even want to think about what it would have been like to come up short.
"It's amazing. It feels good," he said. " We put in a lot of work and it's frustrating when you don't get results.
The fact Auburn was even in position to hand Xavier (8-3) a loss was surprising given the hosts' circumstances early in the second half.
With 14:31 remaining Saturday night, Auburn's chances at a victory looked bleak. The hosts trailed Xavier by 14, 52-38. But then the Tigers began to fight their way back, taking their first lead of the second half at 66-64 on KT Harrell's 3-pointer with 2:27 remaining in regulation. The Musketeers didn't go quietly, though, with Remy Abell sinking a pair of free throws with three seconds left to tie it at 71-all and force the first overtime after Auburn turned it over on its final possession.
Xavier coach Chris Mack was, as one would expect, frustrated his team coughed up a double-digit lead.
"This was our game in the second half and we let it slip away," he said. "Give credit to Auburn."
The come-from-behind win for Auburn came after it trailed 38-25 at the half.
And if one simply looked at the numbers, that would have registered as a surprise. The Tigers shot better from the field, hitting 40 percent (10-for-25) of their attempts compared to the Musketeers' 39.4 percent (13-for-33) effort.
But there were three areas where the visitors held sizable advantages. One was points off the bench, with Xavier taking that category 14-4. Another was second-chance points, where the Musketeers held a 10-2 edge. Finally, Xavier reigned behind the arc, going 5-for-13 on 3-point shots while Auburn made just one of its 10 attempts.
With the win, the Tigers improved to 2-0 on their five-game non-conference home stand which concludes Jan. 3.
But Pearl believes Saturday's victory will resonate long after that.
"I think this is a big win for the SEC," he said, noting that the non-conference win kept his team in contention for the postseason. " .. It's a big win for the conference. That team should have been ranked."
And as a testament to where he wants to take Auburn's program, Pearl said he wasn't going to revel in the victory.
He wanted his team to take the same approach.
"We can't celebrate too much tonight," he said. "We've got to keep this in perspective."