Jared Harper had just sunk a free throw, the penultimate point in Auburn’s 77-71 overtime victory against Kentucky that cemented the Tigers’ first Final Four trip.
He turned around to find Bryce Brown, who had just clenched his fists and screamed “Yes!” before fastening a fierce hug around his fellow guard.
The pair combined for 50 of Auburn’s points that night as the apparently self-declared “best backcourt in the nation.” Coach Bruce Pearl wasn’t quite as bold as that, calling the duo “one of the better backcourts in college basketball.” But whether proud or modest, even the coach admitted his team usually goes as Brown and Harper go. And especially at the end of that Kentucky game, all their teammates did, Pearl said, was “try to get out of the way and get the ball to Jared or Bryce.”
Auburn junior forward Anthony McLemore called Harper’s playmaking and Brown’s shot-making a “one-two punch” that opponents struggle to defend. Fitting descriptions, considering Harper wears No. 1 and Brown No. 2.
Auburn, seeded fifth, trailed second seed Kentucky by 11 points at one point in the first half, feeling the absence of third-leading scorer Chuma Okeke, who endured a season-ending ACL tear in the Sweet 16. But Brown scored 17 points in the second half, Harper 12 in overtime.
“We play well off one another,” Harper said. “I feel like I’m able to do a good job of getting to the basket or driving and being able to find him. He does a good job of moving. I feel like every time I make a move going somewhere, I know exactly where he’s going to be. He knows I’m looking to find him.”
That telekinetic awareness possibly started years ago, when the two Atlanta-area kids played against each other. Just check Twitter for a cute picture of Brown defending a Harper shot when the two were around 10 years old.
“He was always just a great player,” Brown said. “He played the same exact way he plays now. He’s just smarter now, just from playing that point guard position so long. Always can shoot the ball, can handle the ball. Fastest thing on the court.”
Harper, a junior, joined Auburn a year after Brown, a senior. The undersized point guard, at 5-11, 175 pounds, averages 15.4 points per game. Brown, a 6-3, 198-pound shooting guard, averages a team-high 16.
But the pair wasn’t always heralded. Brown was a three-star recruit, Harper a four-star. None of those blue-blood teams Auburn eliminated in recent weeks — Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina — recruited them. Neither of them even made the SEC’s first team this season, making Auburn the only team left in the tournament sans an all-conference player.
Pearl said he remembered recruiting Brown, ranked in the mid-300s of prospects, after one of his assistants discovered him on a lower-level AAU team. The coach invited Brown to his camp.
“I didn’t like him when I first saw him,” Pearl said. “I loved him.”
Pearl, though, had already extended the scholarship to another recruit with many offers, Jacob Evans. But he told Brown in late August 2014 he wasn’t convinced he’d land Evans, and if he didn’t, the scholarship was Brown’s, if he could hold off signing with another team. Brown agreed. Evans went to Cincinnati. And Brown was a Tiger by mid-November.
Another of Pearl’s assistants brought up Harper to the coach, knowing Pearl’s belief in quick, smaller guards. Pearl brought in Harper for a visit and asked the player point-blank if he thought he’d garner scholarship offers from schools like Kentucky.
“He said, ‘No, probably not,’ ” Pearl said. “And I said, ‘Well, I am [offering], and I want you to be my point guard of the future.’ ”
Pearl termed them “self-made guys” who have never let their underdog status intimidate them and have benefited from their fathers’ strong coaching. Brown even fielded his dad’s text-messaged coaching tips at halftime of the Kentucky game.
“In truth, I feel like nobody works harder than me and Jared,” Brown said. “We’re in there all the time before class, after class, before practice, after practice. We live in the gym, and I feel like it’s paying off and it’s showing.”
They’ll be in the gym again Saturday evening, perhaps the biggest one they’ve seen, and they’ll have their team’s championship hopes in their hands.
“They’re like the heart and soul of this team,” McLemore said. “We couldn’t do what we do without them.”