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Despite disappointing end to regular season, Auburn proud of continued fight

AUBURN, Ala.Bruce Pearl began his opening statement Saturday apologizing to media members for running late to his postgame press conference.

Auburn's coach ticked off the obligations he had: wanting to personally thank fans for coming to the home finale. He had to meet with the school's official radio network. He had to actually address his team. And he wanted to speak with recruits who were on campus taking unofficial visits.

But once Pearl finally addressed Saturday's game — a 64-61 loss to Georgia — it had a familiar tone: disappointment mixed with smaller doses of realism and optimism.

Disappointment for losing their seventh straight home game, which marked the longest such streak in the school's history. Realism because, as the Tigers have been in nearly every game this year, they were outmanned. And optimism because they are sure better days are ahead.

Still, it was tough for Pearl to stomach losing yet another close game.

"Missed opportunity. We lost to a Georgia team that was also shorthanded (since) Kenny Gaines didn't play," he said. " ... They made shots. We got open shots and some of them we didn't make and they were 19 of 21 from the free throw line."

Then, Pearl closed off his opening remarks by giving a short evaluation of the state of the program, which finished the regular season 12-19 overall and 4-14 in SEC play.

"The only thing I've been able to accomplish is being able to teach them to compete," he said. "Now we've got to teach them to win. And I've got to do a better job."

It was senior guard KT Harrell, who scored a game-high 24 points, who touched on he and his teammates once more being out of their league depth-wise. A team that already had little to begin with at the outset of the season has lost two key pieces in the past month: Tahj Shamsid-Deen (surgery to repair both shoulders, which are dislocated) and Antoine Mason (still dealing with the death of his father, Anthony Mason, who died last Saturday).

Amidst the adversity, Harrell was proud of the effort put forth in Saturday's defeat.

"I feel like this team continues to work, continues to fight. That's what a lot of people don't see — what we do off the court," he said. "We're working at practice. We're continuing to communicate even through we're outmanned and don't have the depth you really need to win games at a high level. But we've continued to fight and that means a lot to me and the other seniors. And I know it means a lot to the coaches."

What meant every bit as much to Pearl was the support of the fans. Saturday, 9,121 fans packed into Auburn Arena — the fourth sellout of the season. The fact fans have continued to lend their support despite the struggles the team has gone through in his first year on the Plains meant the world to Pearl.

"We are in this together. Our fans have been seeing this all year long, so this is really nothing new," he said. "They were hopeful for more, yet I do think they appreciate the way we are competing."

Finishing the regular season seven games under .500, the Tigers will enter next week's SEC tournament as the 13th seed. The only hope they have to play past that point is to make a miracle run to capture the championship.

The odds are certainly stacked against them.

Yet Pearl kept a stiff upper lip.

"We will take Sunday off and then come back Monday. We'll practice Monday and Tuesday morning. We will travel to Nashville, (Tenn.) Tuesday," he said. "And we are going to pack a lot of clothes."

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