Remember when we were approaching the final weekend of the regular season, and there was talk about Auburn’s chance to beat a top five team for the first time in a quarter century?
Yeah, that was old Auburn. This is new Auburn.
The Tigers destroyed, dominated, embarrassed, ruined, and devastated the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels 97-80 last night to advance to their first Elite Eight in 33 years.
Quite plainly, Auburn was barely challenged in the second half. North Carolina had no answer for the epic shooting night that the Tigers showed after halftime. What’s more, Auburn went only 5-19 from deep in the first half, got 2 combined points from Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, and still led 41-39. Anyone wearing orange and blue knew that the Tigers hadn’t scratched the surface of what they were capable of doing, and it showed after halftime. Roll the tape.
The 17 threes that Auburn hit (12-18 in the second half!!) are a Tournament record for an SEC team. Auburn blew through the Tar Heel defense, building a 21-point lead late and discouraging UNC from even trying to get back into the game by extending things with fouls.
With the win, Auburn advances to the Elite Eight. It’s only the second time the Tigers have pushed this far in the Tournament, with the last being in 1986. Standing in their way is Kentucky, a team that’s already beaten Auburn twice, and gave the Tigers their last defeat more than a month ago in Lexington.
Now, aside from the final result, the most important thing that happened yesterday was the injury to Chuma Okeke. It came late in the game when Auburn was in control, and the lead actually increased after he went out. This was different than Anfernee McLemore’s broken leg in Columbia last season, it seemed to galvanize the team. There was no head-hanging, hand-wringing, and dismayed faces. Instead, Auburn continued to bomb away as they did it for Chuma.
Amazing sportsmanship from UNC's players to greet Chuma Okeke as he made his way off the court pic.twitter.com/cAMeBjZsAK— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 30, 2019
First of all, it was really nice to see the Tar Heels all come over to say something to Chuma as he was hobbling out of the arena. He had thoroughly schooled them all to the tune of 20 points and 11 rebounds, which still ended up being game highs all around. Real recognize real. And if the following videos don’t stir some kind of feeling in you, then by God, I don’t even want to know you.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look good. We’re not going to have Chuma for the rest of this run, however long it lasts. ESPNU apparently reported that his injury was only a bone bruise, but the statements from Bruce Pearl and the rest of the team certainly weren’t encouraging.
Statement from Chuma Okeke, per Auburn team spokesperson: "I'm really proud of our team. We were able to make history tonight. We do not drop off when we go to our bench and we'll be ready for whoever we play on Sunday."— Nathan King (@byNathanKing) March 30, 2019
Thankfully, Chuma’s backups played wonderfully in the win last night. Danjel Purifoy single-handedly stopped a UNC run by hitting three straight three-pointers (12 points on the night), and the success from downtown completely demoralized the Heels. We’ll need more from Danjel tomorrow in extended minutes since Chuma’s likely out.
The biggest thing about this team right now is that they’re playing with more confidence than any team in the country. If they continue to play like they did last night, there’s nobody that can beat them. I feel confident that even against Kentucky, and tall teams like Virginia or Duke, the Tigers can create turnovers and hit perimeter shots.
It’s an unselfish team right now. Bryce Brown didn’t score in the first half, and finished with 12 points. In the past, that might have put him in the dumps emotionally, but look at him after this win.
Also, note the song that’s playing in the background.
It’s likely the greatest singular win in Auburn basketball history. The Tigers beat a number-one seed, in the Sweet Sixteen, to advance to the Elite Eight, and tie the school record for wins at 29. The crazy thing is that it’s not a stretch to say that there’s nobody in the tournament playing better than Auburn right now. While the Tigers struggled with NMSU, they rolled two blue bloods by a combined 31 points, and neither game was that close.
The mindset of the team afterward is incredibly different from what we’ve ever seen from an Auburn basketball team. They’re sad about losing Chuma, but it’s next man up. Auburn scored 40 bench points last night.
This is a deep team. Next man up, and look ahead to Kentucky with a little extra motivation to boost you on the way.
Nobody’s ever beaten Kansas and UNC back to back in a tournament until this year. North Carolina’s got the third most wins in NCAA history. Kansas has the second most wins in NCAA history.
Kentucky sits at number one, and they’re next on the list.
Auburn’s going to have to go through the Region of Death with these teams stepping up one after the other, but man, something just feels right about this team. Kentucky gave us the last loss on the schedule, and it was a thrashing. That 80-53 loss was the true turning point of the season, and Auburn hasn’t lost since then.
I can tell you that the Wildcats aren’t going to see the same group they did back in February. This is a team on a mission. On fire. Bloodthirsty. The last two games are unlike anything that I’ve ever seen from an Auburn basketball team. They’re playing like the Destiny Darlings as they mow through this Murderer’s Row of opponents.
If the loss of Chuma Okeke is too much tomorrow, and Kentucky escapes against a less-than-full-strength Tiger team, then so be it. I don’t think we’re going to make it so easy on them, though. They’ve been tested a couple times in a row now, but we’re unconscious.
Let it continue. 1:20 pm CST tomorrow is when we’ll see if Auburn can advance to the first Final Four in school history. I can hardly sit still from how excited I am.
No sleep tonight, everyone. War Eagle.