Kansas City, Mo. – The confetti was still swirling around Auburn coach Bruce Pearl when he gazed over a team headed to the first Final Four in school history and declared, “This one was for Chuma!”
“The next two,” Pearl added with a triumphant grin, “are for Auburn.”
Drawing inspiration from injured forward Chuma Okeke, the No. 5 seed Tigers finished off a joyful romp through college basketball royalty by bringing down the winningest program of all. Their 77-71 overtime win over second-seeded seed Kentucky in the finals of the Midwest Region on Sunday came after blowouts of Kansas and North Carolina that served notice: Auburn is more than a football school.
Jared Harper led the way with 26 points, including the tying basket in regulation and a crucial series of layups in overtime. Bryce Brown added 24 points and Anfernee McLemore came up big in the extra session, helping Auburn (30-9) set a school record for wins with its 12th straight overall.
“We wanted to make history,” Pearl said. “You have to understand, at Auburn in athletics, we’re not Cinderellas in anything. We’re really, really good in all those other sports. We win championships. Been a long time since men’s basketball has been good.”
Okeke was there in more than just spirit, too. The sophomore forward, who tore his ACL in the final minutes against the Tar Heels, was rolled behind the bench in a wheelchair early in the second half.
He was still there when the wild celebration finally began.
“Moving him to the gym, sitting him on the bench – he doesn’t want the camera on him,” Pearl said. “He must have been watching the first half at the hotel and said, ‘I can’t stay here. I got to go.’”
The Tigers had only reached the Elite Eight once before, and that was 33 years ago. But after twice losing to Kentucky during the regular season, they rose to the occasion on the game’s biggest stage.
Next stop: The Final Four and a national semifinal date with Virginia.
“I’m so glad we came out and battled the whole entire 40 minutes for Chuma,” Brown said. “If he was out there, he would have made a huge difference.”
Auburn forced overtime when Harper made a tying layup with 38 seconds left, and the diminutive guard added the first four points of the extra session. And when Ashton Hagans scored for Kentucky, it was McLemore who added back-to-back baskets that forced the Wildcats to play catch-up.
They never made it all the way back.
Samir Doughty made the second of two free throws to give Auburn a cushion with 16.1 seconds to go, and the Wildcats’ Keldon Johnson misfired at the other end, wrapping up a victory that surely sent the Tigers’ fan base streaming to Toomer’s Corner.
“They played aggressive. They played tough. They bumped and it was a grinding-type game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They deserved to win the game.”
PJ Washington came off the bench and had 28 points and 13 rebounds for the Wildcats, but he also had a shot blocked that could have given his team the lead in the final seconds of regulation. Johnson added 14 points and Hagans finished with 10, though he also committed seven turnovers.
“We thought we were going to win,” said Washington, who declined to say whether it was his final game at Kentucky. “Just a lot of emotions not being able to finish it the way I wanted to.”
Pearl acknowledged his team would need to shoot lights-out to beat Kentucky, and midway through the first half the Tigers were still searching for the switch.
The team that knocked down 17 3-pointers against North Carolina missed seven of its first eight shots against Kentucky. Brown clanked two wide-open attempts in the first minute, and his brazen bunch quickly found themselves staring at a big hole against a much bigger team.
The plan for Big Blue Nation was simple: bludgeon Auburn inside. And it became a whole lot easier when forwards Malik Dunbar, Horace Spencer and Austin Wiley picked up two fouls apiece.
Despite a depleted front line, the SEC Tournament champs managed to hang tough.
Harper kept dashing to the rim for layups, he converted a four-point play late in the half, and the Tigers – who had won 11 straight after a blowout loss at Rupp Arena – were within 35-30 at the break.
It took Brown finding his rhythm for the Tigers to find the lead.
The SEC’s most prolific 3-point shooter this season buried one early in the second half. After he added a pair of free throws on the next trip down floor, Brown corralled a loose ball and dropped another 3-pointer from the corner to give Auburn its first lead at 40-37 with 171/2 minutes left.
Then it was Washington’s turn to provide the clutch plays.
The sophomore forward, who eschewed the NBA draft for another year in Lexington, made an acrobat duck-under layup to knot the game 58-all. Then, Washington followed up his own miss with a finger-roll to give the Wildcats a 60-58 lead with a minute to go.
Harper’s scooping layup later knotted the game, and both teams had chances to score again in regulation. Washington and Johnson had their shots swatted in the paint for Kentucky, and Spencer – an odd choice to take the final shot – missed an open 3 at the buzzer for Auburn.
All that did was delay the wild party that would soon take place on the Tigers’ bench.