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Tip-Off Countdown: #27 Auburn 97 North Carolina 80

An ELITE performance from the Tigers propelled them into the Elite 8.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

March 29, 2019 - Kansas City, Missouri

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16

To quote Rod Bramblett: “It’s the Blue Bloods vs the Blue Collars”

After destroying Kansas in Salt Lake City, the road didn’t get any easier for Auburn as they faced the top seed in the Midwest Region, the North Carolina Tar Heels.

This was a classic strength vs strength matchup as both teams loved to play very fast. Going into this game, many gave North Carolina the advantage because they didn’t think Auburn could keep up with North Carolina’s tempo.... or so they thought. There was no question going into this game that it was going to be a track meet and early on, this one was being played at an incredible tempo.

Both teams ran up and down the first 5 minutes trading baskets as Chuma Okeke and Malik Dunbar each had 5 points in the first 5 minutes of the game, but trailed 14-12 early.

J’Von McCormick came in and gave Auburn a lift off the bench with Jared Harper once again dealing with foul trouble. He made 2 baskets and had an offensive rebound to set up Dunbar’s 2nd 3 of the game which gave Auburn a 21-17 lead. Chuma would carry the offense over the next few minutes but a 7-0 Tar Heels run with 7 minutes left in the half gave North Carolina 29-26 lead.

Carolina would take a 5-point lead but McCormick and Samir Doughty kept Auburn in the game as the game approached halftime.

Okeke finished off an impressive half with a jumper as he led Auburn with 12 points and 7 rebounds in the 1st half. McCormick continued to play well scoring 10 1st half points as he made the tying basket with 35 seconds left and scored a buzzer beating layup to give Auburn a 41-39 halftime lead. Malik Dunbar and Samir Doughty combined for 15 1st half points.

The Tigers led despite just a combined 2 points from Jared Harper and Bryce Brown. While they were slowed down in the first 20 minutes, both of them got off to a hot start in the 2nd half.

Harper and Brown made 3s in the first minute to put Auburn ahead 47-39. Okeke’s 3rd 3 of the night suddenly put Auburn up double digits. Okeke continued to assert his dominance consistently getting into the paint and finishing at the basket as the Tigers led 56-46 at the first TV Timeout. Carolina would pull within 6 a few minutes later but then a block party broke out in Kansas City.

First, it was Austin Wiley.

Malik Dunbar would hit his 3rd 3 of the game moments later to put Auburn back up 10 and them Chuma decided he wanted to join the block party.

Danjel Purifoy had struggled to find his role in the Auburn offense after returning to the team back in mid-December. But when Auburn needed him to step up in March, Danjel was able to answer the call. He made some big shots in the SEC Tournament but his most impressive run was what he did midway through the 2nd half of this game.

On 3 straight possessions, Danjel Purifoy got hot and knocked down 3s on 3 consecutive possessions as Auburn built a 73-57 lead.

Things were going so good that Anfernee McLemore got in on the 3-point shooting banking home a 3 on the next possession as Auburn had a 19 point lead with 9 minutes to go. Everything was going great for Auburn and then..... adversity struck.

Chuma Okeke’s injury was a huge blow for Auburn and simply heartbreaking for someone who had become an absolute joy to watch over the last 2 seasons as he continued to get better and set his sights on the NBA. Chuma stepped up in big games for Auburn and was well on his way to potentially a 25-point, 15 rebound game. And for a brief moment, I was afraid the air had come out of Auburn’s sail as the Tar Heels cut Auburn’s lead to 11 and the energy that had been there moments ago was suddenly gone (and understandably so).

Horace Spencer made a bucket to stop the run but the Tar Heels were able to get within 10 before Purifoy, who suddenly had a much larger role on this team, knocked home his 4th 3-pointer of the 2nd half to give Auburn an 81-68 lead. Carolina would get no closer at that point.

Bryce Brown had a quiet night by his standards but he provided the “night night” blow to Carolina with a 3-pointer with 2:14 left and then a steal and slam to put Auburn ahead 90-72.

It was walk-on time in the final minutes and Myles Parker made the most of his opportunity to get onto the court knocking down a 3 in the final moments. Auburn made 17 3-pointers against the Tar Heels and here’s a look at all of them.

The win put Auburn in the Elite 8 for the first time since 1986 where they would fall to eventual National Champion Louisville.

As great as this win was for Auburn, it was obviously bittersweet knowing that Chuma had suffered a serious injury. It was hard seeing the emotion Bruce Pearl had in his postgame interview talking about it.

Chuma Okeke led the way for Auburn with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Malik Dunbar had 13 points while Bryce Brown scored 12 points, all in the 2nd half. Danjel Purifoy played just 12 minutes but scored 12 points on his four 2nd-half 3-pointers. J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty had major contributions in the 1st half to keep Auburn in the game in the first half and both ended up with 10 points apiece. Jared Harper had 9 points and 11 assists.

Here are the highlights!

Toomer’s Corner was electric once again but a little more subdued knowing that Auburn would likely play on without Chuma Okeke. Kentucky would knock off Houston setting up an All-SEC Elite 8 game. Kentucky had given Auburn its last loss in blowout fashion and defeated the Tigers twice in the regular season. But it’s so hard to beat a team 3 times in a season and the Tigers had even less pressure on them after Chuma’s injury. Why not us? We’ll look back at that game later today.

War Eagle!