Can I be honest with you for a moment? When I first filled out my bracket I had the Tigers falling to the Tar Heels in the Sweet 16. Why? Well it just felt like if there was any team that wouldn’t be fazed by Auburn’s pace it would be the nation’s leader in possessions per game. North Carolina WANTS to run and has the athletes to do it. It seemed logical that if this game got out of hand it would be because Auburn couldn’t stay with the top seeded Tar Heels.
But a buddy of mine properly shamed me for my non belief and by Wednesday before the tournament started I had Auburn in the Final Four.
Not only did Auburn run with the Tar Heels, they actually ran BETTER than Roy Williams’s club. While UNC fans chuckled at Bruce Pearl’s comments about not being afraid to play fast against North Carolina, the Tigers backed up their coach’s confidence by obliterating UNC in the 2nd half. It came at a cost in Chuma Okeke’s terrible injury but it was still beautiful to watch unfold for most of the night.
Let’s relive some of the best moments.
Auburn ranks 11th in block percentage. This AU front court might be offensively limited at times but they will make you earn EVERY SINGLE point down low. Horace Spencer makes that point abundantly clear to Cameron Johnson early Friday night.
I don’t think any play better highlights Samir Doughty’s strengths than this one right here. A bad feed to Austin Wiley paired with his inability at times to catch the durn basketball leads to what should be a turnover. However, Doughty beautifully reads the pass on the break, steps into the lane and snatches it a way. He then completes this poor UNC defender’s humiliation by hitting him with his patented “euro step” to give the Tigers the lead.
Defense into offense, that’s how Auburn has left blue blood in their wake. The Tar Heels’ 5* point guard gets a little too cute trying to split the double team and Spencer picks his pocket. Then he flashes his insane athleticism by cruising down the court for the finish.
Jared Harper had to once again sit down early with two fouls. Once again, J’Von McCormick was fantastic in his stead going for 10 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in his 21 minutes of action. No play though was bigger than this drive to finish off the half. Incredibly, he splits the UNC double team and then explodes past the help defense to finish at the rim. His transformation has been a huge reason why Auburn is in the Final Four.
After sitting most of the first half with two fouls, Jared Harper made his presence felt immediately in the 2nd half. This is honestly pretty terrible defense from UNC and Harper makes them pay. Chuma comes up to set the ball screen but Cameron Johnson sees it and sinks down to take Chuma way on the roll. Luke Maye, however, gets caught in no man’s land leaving an acre of space for Harper up top. You shouldn’t do that....
Against most teams this is pretty good transition defense off the missed shot. You wanna get back, stop the ball and get into the lane to prevent any easy transition layups. But this ain’t your normal transition offense you are facing in Auburn. The Tigers WANT you to sink into the lane and leave their shooters WIDE open behind the arc. Especially if that shooter is Bryce Brown on the wing.
With a healthy Chuma Okeke the Auburn Tigers would be my favorite to win the championship at this point. He was masterful against the Tar Heels and his ability to score from anywhere on the floor is greatly missed. In the grainy gif above, he catches former Auburn native Garrison Brooks loafing and gets outstanding position down low. After the feed, he hits Brooks with a fake left before spinning and finishing through contact on his right. He’s a special player.
Nassir Little hits Chuma Okeke with a nasty crossover and looks poised to put himself on the SportsCenter highlight reel later that evening. Austin Wiley says sure you can be on there but not in the way you had hoped.... He greets the NBA prospect at the rim and perfectly swats the ball away leading to a transition opportunity for the Tigers. Wiley may not be providing the offensive production Auburn would like to see but his presence as a rim protector and rebounder will be huge for the Tigers this Saturday night.
Chuma closes out the 3 pt attempt and then comes all the way back to SEND THAT NONSENSE BACK FROM WHENCE IT CAME!
I honestly could have included all four of Danjel’s bombs but this was the prettiest to me. This action is how Chuma has done so much damage this year from deep - high ball screen and flare out for the open 3. Purifoy has one of the smoothest strokes that it’s shocking when his shot doesn’t go in. Auburn could use another 12 point barrage from him Saturday..
“Brown is good, but if he’s not hitting shots, he provides almost no tangible value.”
Not only did Bruce send the walk ons in late against the Tar Heels but Myles Parker buried an open three to make sure UNC understood how out gunned they were Friday night.