J’Von McCormick sliced through the lane and laid home a bucket at the end of the first half to give Auburn a 41-39 lead at the intermission, and that’s where the party began for the Tigers in Kansas City.
Auburn raced away from North Carolina in the second half, hitting 12-18 three-pointers in that period, and beat the Tar Heels 97-80 to advance to just the second Elite Eight in program history.
It was an epic performance as the Tar Heels bore witness to the mighty fury of a fully-operational orange and blue battle station. Auburn pushed North Carolina to frustration and got double-digit efforts from six players in what turned into a surprising blowout win. Chuma Okeke led all players with a performance for the ages — 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 assists — before he suffered a knee injury late in the game. Okeke walked off the floor, but he did not return to the game, and we’re still waiting to hear how damaged his knee may be.
The first half started off on fire as both teams showed off their normal lightning pace. It was tied 7-7 less than two minutes in, and tied 12-12 at the first timeout of the game. Malik Dunbar hit two early three-pointers while Bryce Brown and Jared Harper were struggling from the floor, and Chuma Okeke added clutch buckets time and again.
Trailing 39-35, Auburn got a quick basket from Okeke, and then two straight scores from J’Von McCormick gave the Tigers a 6-0 run and a 41-39 lead at the half.
This J'Von McCormick bucket gives Auburn the 41-39 lead at halftime. pic.twitter.com/6l5uGmoJvS— Sporting News (@sportingnews) March 30, 2019
Auburn was not just hanging with the Midwest Region 1-seed, but leading the Midwest Region 1-seed, after Bryce Brown and Jared Harper combined for just 2 points, the team shot 5-19 from deep, and went 0-3 from the foul line.
The second half opened with a jolt and Auburn ran away from there. Jared Harper and Bryce Brown hit threes back-to-back, and then a Malik Dunbar jumper gave Auburn the first double-digit lead of the game at 49-39. Auburn’s lead stayed around 8-10 points for the next several minutes, before UNC cut the lead down to 60-54 thanks to a Luke Maye jumper. That’s when the domination started and Auburn ran away.
Austin Wiley hit a free throw, and then the Tigers got back-to-back-to-back threes from Malik Dunbar and Danjel Purifoy (twice). Purifoy hit another three shortly after, and Auburn suddenly led 73-57 midway through the half. Anfernee McLemore gave Auburn a 19-point edge with a three, and provided enough of a margin for the Tigers the rest of the way.
Unfortunately, several minutes later, Chuma Okeke slipped on some moisture under the basket as he drove inside. His knee buckled, and both teams immediately knew the injury was severe. He was able to walk off the court almost under his own power, but he did not return, and his status for Sunday is still uncertain.
Leading 85-72, Auburn finally put the hammer down with a Bryce Brown three, which he followed up with a steal and a dunk to give the Tigers an 18-point edge with less than two minutes to play. The Tigers hit their largest advantage on a Myles Parker three in the closing seconds before winning 97-80 in the end.
Aside from Okeke’s 20 points, Malik Dunbar scored 13, Bryce Brown and Danjel Purifoy added 12, and the Tigers got 10 points apiece from Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick. North Carolina was led by Coby White and Cam Johnson, who each had 15 points.
Auburn moves on to just the second Elite Eight in school history, and first since the 1986 team reached the Regional Final. The Tigers will play the winner of the Kentucky/Houston matchup that’s taking place right now. Kentucky beat the Tigers twice during the regular season, but it was the 80-53 loss in Lexington that spurred Auburn to string together this 11-game winning streak.
Y’all. This is a special run. Enjoy it. We’re in rarefied air. War Eagle!