With Chuma and Chuck providing the inspiration, Auburn combined three-pointing shooting with a furious fast-break game that Kentucky could not overcome and advanced to the Final Four for the first time in program history with a 77-71 victory in overtime. (Box score)
Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL in the game against North Carolina, arrived at halftime to cheer his teammates on from a wheelchair behind the bench. And in the CBS studio, Auburn’s Hall of Famer, Charles Barkley, went a little nuts as the fifth-seeded Tigers beat the second-seeded Wildcats in Kansas City, advancing to a national semifinal against Virginia on Saturday in Minneapolis.
Samir Doughty’s free throw with 16.1 seconds left and Harper’s at 9.1 provided the final, insurmountable margin for the Tigers.
As Coach Bruce Pearl sweated through his blue shirt, Auburn picked up the pace dramatically in the second half, with Bryce Brown scoring 24 points and Jared Harper 22. And, like Kansas and North Carolina, Kentucky knows how tough it is to get past Auburn.
It was, as an emotional Barkley put it from the studio, “a total team effort. A total team effort. This was the greatest day in Auburn basketball history.”
Harper scored with 35 seconds left in regulation, capping a wild flourish in which Auburn tied the score at 60 and sent the game into overtime. With no time left, Horace Spencer’s three-point attempt clanged off the rim.
With 1:25 left, the score had been tied at 58-58 tie, with Kentucky looking to add another Final Four appearance to its storied history.
Auburn went on a 10-0 run at the start of the second half and, with 17:51 left, it tied the score at 37 on free throws by Bryce Brown. Auburn quickly grabbed the lead with a three-pointer.
Auburn remembered what got it past Kansas and North Carolina and made things interesting with a late run that closed Kentucky’s lead to 35-30 at the half. Emphasis on run there. Eschewing the missed three-pointers earlier in the game, the Tigers took off running and found success.
Okeke’s in the house for Auburn
CBS reports that Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL in the victory over North Carolina, joined Auburn in the second half, cheering on the Tigers from the bench. Okeke, who will have surgery Tuesday, had been watching the game with his family in a Kansas City hotel, with Jamie Erdahl of CBS reporting that he hadn’t been sure he wanted to be there. He changed his mind, though, and Auburn got a big lift.
Off and running
Kentucky’s size and strength advantage was on display early, as was Auburn’s inability to compensate with the loss of Chuma Okeke. Kentucky jumped out to a 9-3 lead as the Tigers went 1 of 7 from the field. With just over 15 minutes left, P.J. Washington came into the game for the Wildcats and looked fully recovered from the ankle injury he suffered during the conference tournament.
With just over 12 minutes left, the Wildcats had expanded their lead to 10 points (17-7) and Auburn was making only 25 percent of its shots. With still over 10 minutes left in the half, Auburn’s Austin Wiley, Horace Spencer and Malik Dunbar each had accumulated two fouls as they tried to keep up.
Malik Dunbar paid tribute to his Auburn teammate, Chuma Okeke, by wearing his jersey during warm-ups. Okeke will have surgery Tuesday after tearing his ACL in the game against North Carolina. Okeke is not with the team; he’s back at the team’s hotel in Kansas City with his family. For Charles Barkley, Sunday’s first game is very, very personal.
Barkley’s big game
The TV analyst-Hall of Fame player is a little excited about Auburn’s presence in the Elite Eight. (You might have noticed if you could find the Round Mound of Rebound behind a pile of Tigers paraphernalia.)
How was he coping shortly before tipoff?
“I can’t believe we’re this close to the Final Four,” he admitted on the CBS pregame show. And he wasn’t going to engage Kentucky Coach John Calipari, who joked Saturday about urinating on Barkley’s statue on the Auburn campus. “We’re playing a great program in Kentucky. Notice that we’ve played three of the greatest programs in college basketball history — Kansas, North Carolina and today Kentucky for the right to get to the Final Four. You can’t ask for anything better.”
Barkley was given the chance to get back at his pal, Coach Cal, and declined. “I get along with Cal very well. His No. 1 assistant is one of my old teammates, Kenny Payne,” he said. “I’m a big Cal fan, but clearly my loyalties are down with Auburn today. It’s going to be a hell of a game.
His advice for players? Control your breathing. “And think about all the crap you’ve got to do.”
Elite Eight schedule and results
Kansas City (Midwest Region)
Washington (East Region)
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State, 5:05 p.m., CBS
Anaheim (West Region)
Louisville (South Region)
How they got here: Kentucky (30-6) and Auburn (29-9) met twice during the regular season, with the Wildcats taking both games, including an 80-53 rout in late February. After easily dispatching 15th-seeded Abilene Christian in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Kentucky has played tight games against No. 7 seed Wofford, 62-56, in the second round and No. 3 seed Houston, 62-58, in the Sweet 16.
Auburn enters Sunday’s regional final on an 11-game winning streak, including a run to the championship in the SEC tournament. The Tigers escaped in the first round of the NCAA tournament with a 78-77 win over No. 12 seed New Mexico State, but have twice been dominant, ousting college basketball blue-bloods Kansas (89-75) and North Carolina (97-80) in the second round and Sweet 16, respectively.
Elite Eight history: Kentucky is in its 38th Elite Eight, an NCAA record, including seven under Coach John Calipari. The Wildcats are trying to reach their first Final Four since 2015. Kentucky is first in major-college basketball history with 2,263 wins. Auburn’s two previous wins this tournament were over the programs ranked second (Kansas, 2,248) and third (North Carolina, 2,232). The Tigers are in their second-ever Elite Eight, having last made the round in 1986. Bruce Pearl has coached in the Elite Eight once before, in 2010 with Tennessee, but has never been to a Final Four.
They said it: “We respect their players and what they do and how they play and how hard they play. We’re a little different than them. They’re going to take 35, 40 threes. It’s what they do. We’re not going to shoot that many, but we’ll take them if they’re there, and, you know, it should be a good game. One good thing is it means that the SEC will have at least one team in the Final Four.” — Kentucky Coach John Calipari
“When it gets tough and you got to match up, we got five, and you don’t. That’s how we feel.” — Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl
Whatever the flaws of the one-and-done system that creates such turnover, one thing it does is reward good teachers and expose poor ones. You don’t make seven Elite Eight appearances in 10 years, as Calipari has, purely on recruiting.
Bruce Pearl’s Tigers deliver a gem to pull away from top-seeded North Carolina in a Midwest Region that bears scars from recent NCAA investigations.
The Auburn-Kentucky winner will face Bennett and Virginia in the Final Four.
The Auburn coach — sales guy, program resuscitator, man with enemies and baggage — is the very embodiment of his sport.
He got 49 straight picks correct, but took a hard tumble Thursday night.