Kansas City, Mo. — Auburn coach Bruce Pearl knew the moment sophomore forward Chuma Okeke landed on the floor, his left knee having buckled at a gruesome angle, that something serious had happened.
Pearl learned the extent of the damage Saturday.
An MRI exam revealed that Okeke tore his ACL late in the fifth-seeded Tigers’ victory over North Carolina, sidelining him for the rest of the NCAA Tournament. Their leading rebounder and third-leading scorer will have to watch from the bench when his red-hot team takes on second-seeded Kentucky in the Midwest Region finale Sunday for a spot in the program’s first Final Four.
Then, he’ll head back to Alabama to await surgery Tuesday with Dr. James Andrews.
“I knew that was no sprain,” Pearl said. “The reaction from all the guys is really unfair, because he’s such a great kid, really hard worker, humble. But he has a big dream. Players like Chuma give other players courage and confidence. And we’re really going to miss him.”
The Tigers (29-9) will need all the courage and confidence they can get against the Wildcats (30-6), who roll into the Elite Eight with their usual assortment of NBA-ready playmakers.
“We’re going to have tough matchups,” said Pearl, whose team has already lost to the Wildcats twice this season. “We lost every single matchup in Lexington, from the bench to the starters, but Chuma always gave us a chance to win that matchup. So now he’ll be out for a while. He’s going to rehab. But we’re all sad. We’re heartbroken for him.”
In fact, the injury hit the Tigers so hard on Friday night that there was no boisterous celebration in the locker room following their win over the Tar Heels. There was only disappointment and concern.
Now, the question is whether Okeke’s injury can galvanize the team.
“It’s just another reason for our team to come even closer together,” said junior guard Jared Harper. “Last year we faced a lot of adversity with stuff going down – Anfernee (McLemore) went down with an injury last year – and it brought us closer together. We are all we got.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari understands what it’s like to lose players to injury late in the season. He’s run into the problem several times in Lexington, and he was without leading scorer P.J. Washington for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament because of a foot injury.
Washington returned for the Wildcats’ regional semifinal win over Houston.
“You shake your head,” Calipari said. “As a player you know that’s out there, you know what I’m saying? Every one of us was physically ill. This is a sport, that happens at times, but you don’t want to see it happen to anybody, and the crazy thing is not only is their team playing as well as anybody right now, he was playing as though he was their best player, which he probably was.”
Okeke averaged 12 points and 6.8 rebounds this season, but the sophomore forward was a monster on the glass against the Tar Heels. He had already scored 20 points and pulled down 11 boards when he began going up for a layup and his left knee buckled along the base line.
His incredible night was over just that quick, as was the rest of his NCAA Tournament.
“It’s the most unpleasant thing in the world,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “What you have to do is just keep going forward, because Auburn is going to show up to play regardless of who is out there, and those kids who are still playing have to try to pick up the load a little bit more.
“Nobody should ever have to play over their head,” he added, “but it gives them a little more motivation to play even a little bit better. Every one of them will have to do it.”