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Separating the Elite from the Sweet: Sweet Sixteen Recap

Toomer's Corner celebration of the Auburn men's basketball team beating North Carolina to advance to the Elite 8 on Friday, March 29, 2019 in Auburn, Ala. 
Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics
Toomer's Corner celebration of the Auburn men's basketball team beating North Carolina to advance to the Elite 8 on Friday, March 29, 2019 in Auburn, Ala. Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

Kansas City, Missouri — Day 1: Thursday —The Sweet Sixteen kicked off Thursday night with the first four of the eight games. Thursday night’s matchups included one-seed Gonzaga taking on four-seed Florida State in the West region, two-seed Tennessee facing off against three-seed Purdue in the South region, two-seed Michigan playing three-seed Texas Tech in the West region, and 12-seed Oregon, the sole Cinderella of the tournament, taking on 1-seed Virginia in the South region.

Game 1: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 Florida State — West Region

The first game included the Florida State Seminoles taking on the Gonzaga Bulldogs in a rematch from last season’s NCAA tournament. Last year, Florida State came away with the win over 1-seed Gonzaga. This year went the other way as Gonzaga won 72-58 in a game that the Seminoles could never really close the gap that Gonzaga created early.

The national media may have hit the nail on the head by predicting that Brandon Clarke would play a key role in this season’s matchup and possibly was the difference in the two games these teams have played in the past calendar year. Clarke may not have been the leading scorer for the Bulldogs, but his fifteen points and twelve boards were crucial in helping Gonzaga keep separation from a scrappy Florida State squad that had been playing its best ball of the year going into the game. Clarke was the catalyst in this matchup for Gonzaga with several big momentum and energy plays including a huge put-back dunk in the second half over a Seminole defender. Clarke was not alone by any means. The “Zags” had three other players score in double digits, including star forward Rui Hachimura dropping a team-high 17 points en route to the victory.

On the flip side, the biggest storyline heading into the game for Florida State was that they would be without senior forward Phil Cofer, who had lost his father just days ago. Unlike their counterparts, the Seminoles struggled to sustain offense all night. Trent Forrest led Florida State with a game-high 20 points, but his teammates struggled to support him on the offensive side of the ball as the Seminoles did not have a single other player score in double digits. Part of the struggle for Florida State was their inability to hit from three-point land. The Seminoles shot an abysmal three of 20 from deep for a whopping 15% from deep. 

Gonzaga was able to create separation at the end of the game from Florida State thanks to their effort getting to the free throw line and winning the battle on the boards. Gonzaga shot nine more free throws than FSU and out-rebounded the Seminoles by nine as well.

In the end, solid inside play by Gonzaga, poor three-point shooting, and free throw and rebound disparity were too much for Florida State to overcome as Gonzaga came away with the win. They advance to Mark Few’s third Elite Eight as Gonzaga’s head coach and will play again Saturday night.

Game 2: No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 3 Purdue — South Region

The second game of the night included one of the more interesting matchups of the Sweet Sixteen. A very solid Purdue team with Carsen Edward, the undoubted star of the tournament to this point, took on an extremely talented Tennessee squad that had not looked quite up to snuff in the first two rounds.

Ironically, the game mirrored that of Tennessee’s round of 32 game against Iowa. Except, the script was flipped on Tennessee this time. Just as Tennessee dominated Iowa early in the game on the way to a 25-point lead, Purdue jumped on Tennessee en route to an 18-point lead.

Doing their best Iowa impression, Tennessee went on a furious run to come all the way back to take the lead late. Tennessee two star big men, Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, put on a show on the way to a pair of 21-point performances. Schofield and Williams added nine and seven rebounds, respectively. They got some help from point guard Jordan Bone, who added 10 points, and a crucial 16-point performance from Jordan Bowden off the bench.

Purdue’s Carsen Edwards continued his dominant tournament by putting up 29 points, bringing his tournament total to 97 points in just three games. As great as Edwards has been in the tournament and was on Thursday night, he was not the big story for Purdue. 

That belonged to senior guard Ryan Cline, who put together a shooting performance that even Steph Curry would be jealous of. Cline was 10 of 13 from the field and a ridiculous seven of 10 from three-point range. Let’s make one thing clear: these were not your average, wide-open three pointers either. They were contested, coming off ball screens, fadeaway threes that were splashing in the net anytime Tennessee made a run or took the lead in the second half.

Cline and Edwards were going shot for shot with Tennessee’s talented stars, but it was not quite enough as Tennessee took a two-point lead with just 10 seconds left in the game. Purdue coach Matt Painter took a timeout to talk strategy on what would likely be the final possession. Purdue’s Carsen Edwards came screaming across half court and down the right side of the lane before getting his shot attempt swatted out of bounds by Grant Williams at the rim with just four ticks left on the clock.

On the ensuing play, Purdue inbounded the ball to their star Edwards in the corner, Edwards let a potential game-winning three pointer loose. It did not go, but inexplicably, Tennessee’s Lamonte Turner fouled Edwards on the shot. Edwards, who is a good free throw shooter, proceeded to make two of three free throws to tie the game and force overtime.

In overtime, Purdue proved to be just too much for the Vols as they jumped out to a quick lead and never looked back. Purdue was able to get to the line consistently in overtime. In a game where the free throw shooting was atrocious, it was Purdue that scored 11 of their final 17 en route to a victory to advance to the Elite Eight with a 99-94 victory over Tennessee.

Game 3: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Texas Tech

The third game of the day was between the Michigan Wolverines and the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Both teams are among the best defenses in college basketball, ranking second and third in scoring defense respectively. The game was supposed to be low-scoring and a defensive struggle.

And it did more than live up to its expectations, especially in the first half, but even that got off to a slow start as the arena lost power. By the time the power was back on and the game was ready to begin, CBS told those watching the game at home that they still did not have power in their production truck, so the initial few minutes of the game was shot on a single camera in the arena with the half time crew doing a pieced together version of a play-by-play with Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley taking jabs at each other in between possession.

Much like the CBS truck, both offenses apparently had to reboot as the first half was what can be called nothing other than a “rock fight.” Teams were throwing up bricks after bricks all half long. It was history in the making. It was not until a Davide Moretti three pointer with 8:21 left in the first half that a team had reached double digits. That is an astounding 11 minutes and 39 seconds that it took for one team in this game to score enough points to light up a second digit next to their name on the scoreboard.

Texas Tech ended the half on a nine-to-four run. That may not feel significant, but when both teams combine for four different two-minute stretches where not a single point is scored in one half, a five-point swing is huge. The teams went to the locker room with the Red Raiders up 24-16. Yes, Michigan scored 16 total points in a half of basketball in the Sweet Sixteen. It was a new low for points scored in a half in a NCAA Tournament basketball game.

Both teams emerged from half time with new life as those watching actually saw consistent scoring for the entire half. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, Texas Tech continued to extend their lead behind Jarrett Culver’s 22 points. Michigan’s leading scorer was Ignas Brazdeikis with 17 points, adding 13 rebounds as well. 

Both teams struggled to score early, but Michigan had one part of their offense that was completely absent from the entire game until their very last shot attempt. Michigan was as bad from three-point range as any team can be. They were a baffling zero for 18 on threes until former team manager C.J. Baird hit a three with 24 seconds left. Texas Tech would go on to win 63-44 in what was one of the most bizarre games of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Texas Tech makes it back to the Elite Eight to take on the Gonzaga Bulldogs Saturday.

Game 4: No. 1 Virginia vs. Oregon

The final game of the night was between the red-hot Oregon Ducks and the Virginia Cavaliers. Similar to the matchup before it, it was a game that was between two great defensive teams.

The game may not have started as slowly as the one before it, but it ended up in a similar place. Both teams were more consistent with their offense, but neither team scored a lot at the same time. Both teams shot below 40 percent from the field.

By half time, Virginia appeared to somewhat have command of the game, but Oregon showed a lot of heart and grit to fight back against one of the best teams in college basketball. Their offense was led by Louis King, who scored 16 points, with Payton Pritchard and Paul White adding 11 and 10 points, respectively. It just ultimately was not enough. Behind Ty Jerome’s 13 points, the Virginia starting five had four double-digit scorers and accounted for all 53 of their points.

Virginia sharpshooting guard Kyle Guy had 10 points but was an abysmal two of 11 from deep as he has struggled to find his shot recently. The Virginia bench was a complete non-factor, scoring zero points and grabbing two total rebounds. The Oregon bench outscored the Virginia bench by eight points and also grabbed three more rebounds, as well as a trio of assists and a steal. 

Unfortunately for Oregon, this may have been one of those games that they just ran out of time. Virginia survived the Oregon comeback to win 53-49. The Cavaliers advance to the Elite Eight to play Purdue.

Day 2: Friday

On Friday, the Sweet Sixteen picked right back up with an additional four matchups. In the East region, three-seed LSU took on two-seed Michigan State, and one-seed Duke played ACC rival, four-seed Virginia Tech shortly after. In the Midwest region, one-seed North Carolina took on the red-hot, fifth-seed Auburn Tigers, and two-seed Kentucky faced off with three-seed Houston.

Game 5: No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 3 LSU

The first game on Friday night was between the Michigan State Spartans and the LSU Tigers. The headlines surrounding this game were all centered on the head coaches. Tom Izzy had come under fire for his approach to coaching the week before. Will Wade, on the other hand, was not even present for the game as he is under investigation by the FBI.

From the tip, Michigan State controlled this game in just about every single aspect. Behind the hot shooting of Aaron Henry and their “floor general” point guard Cassius Winston, Michigan State outshot and outrebounded an LSU squad that has shown the ability to score and is one of the better rebounding teams in the nations.

LSU had inconsistent play from everyone on their roster except Tremont Waters. Waters put up 23 points while hitting four three pointers. Javonte Smart was “O-fer” from the field, missing all six of his shots. Naz Reed was five for 14 from the field and zero for five from three-point range as he posted a disappointing line of 10 points and nine rebounds.

To LSU’s credit, they did go on a ferocious run to end the first half and open the second half to cut the Michigan State lead from 17 points to four points. The only problem was that as quickly as they closed the gap, Michigan State extended the lead right back out to 15 points.

For Michigan State, Aaron Henry was nine of 14 from the field and two of four from three-point range for a total of 20 points, while adding eight rebounds, six steals, a block, and a steal. Winston gave Michigan State 17 points and eight assists while Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman combined for 18 points, 19 rebounds, seven assists, two steals, and two blocks. Michigan State even got 15 points from Gabe Brown off the bench. Top to bottom, Michigan State was getting production from the whole team as they shot 47 percent from the field and 40.6 percent from three on the way to their 80-63 win over LSU to advance to the Elite Eight.

Game 6: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 5 Auburn

The night’s second game was between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Auburn Tigers. The nation’s third best scoring offense was about to see the nation’s best three point shooting squad in what was sure to be a shootout.

At the start of the game, it had the feel of an absolute battle. The lead changed hands seven times in the first half. When Jared Harper fouled for the second time with 7:12 left in the first half, North Carolina appeared poised to make their run to separate themselves before half, but Auburn and J’Von McCormick stood strong. After weathering an initial Tarheel spurt, Auburn began to claw back before the half. They ended the half on a six to zero run, including a J’Von McCormick coast-to-coast, buzzer-beater layup to go to half up 41-39.

Auburn took control of the second half immediately by extending that six to zero run all the way out to a 14-0 run behind a pair of Bryce Brown threes and a Malik Dunbar jumper. It was from that point on that Auburn would not be denied. North Carolina continued to try to fight their way back into the game, but every time they hit a shot, Auburn answered with a shot of their own. The feel of the game had completely swung in Auburn’s direction.

Just when it looked like Auburn all but had the game wrapped up with a 76-62 lead, star power forward Chuma Okeke, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds in a dominating performance against North Carolina star Luke Maye, went up for a layup and came crashing down to the floor in a heap after he awkwardly planted off his left foot for a layup. He grabbed at his left knee while he covered his face with his hand. Trainers were checking him out on the floor while the Auburn team huddled together and prayed. Once Okeke was helped to his feet, North Carolina players came over to pat him on the back.

All the sudden, the narrative for Auburn changed. Auburn was now playing for their fallen teammate rather than cruising to an Elite Eight. Auburn could not - and would not - let this game slip away as the team continued to fight. Auburn’s entire team stepped up its production. Jared Harper had nine points and 11 assists to set a new single-game school record for the tournament. Maliki Dunbar had 13 points. Bryce Brown had 12 points, while J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty each pitched in 10 points.

North Carolina had solid production from their starting five. Luke Maye had 13 points and seven rebounds. Cameron Johnson had 15 points and five rebounds while Coby White added his own 15 points with four assists and three rebounds. Kenny Williams put up 10 points and five rebounds as well.

As solid as North Carolina played, Auburn hung right in there as well. North Carolina was the best rebounding team in the country while Auburn is a bad rebounding team typically. Auburn only allowed themselves to be out rebounded by four rebounds. Auburn got red-hot from three-point range in the second half, hitting 12 of 18 three pointers. Auburn’s fight and grit and ability to shoot allowed them to cruise past North Carolina and advance to their second-ever Elite Eight with a 97-80 victory.

Game 7: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 4 Virginia Tech

The second-to-last game of the Sweet Sixteen had the star-laden Duke Blue Devils taking on the gritty and hardworking Virginia Tech Hokies in a yet another meeting of the two ACC rivals this season. Duke normally trots out a starting five with three of the four most talked-about and hyped players in college basketball, including the face of college basketball this season in Zion Williamson. Unfortunately for them, Cam Reddish was out with an illness tonight.

This game was another back-and-forth matchup. Virginia Tech was daring Duke players to shoot the three. It worked for some guys and backfired mightily for others. R.J. Barrett kept jacking up threes and kept missing, going zero for seven. On the other side of it, Tre Jones, typically an abysmal three point shooter, was five of seven from deep.

Duke got another great game out of their biggest star in Williamson. He had 23 points, six rebounds and three blocks in the win. Tre Jones added 22 points with eight assists. Barrett scored 18 points and had an impressive 11 assists at the power forward spot for the Blue Devils.

Virginia Tech big man Kerry Blackshear Jr. had a huge game for the Hokies with 18 points, 16 rebounds, five assists and two blocks. He got help from Ahmed Hill and Justin Robinson, who added 15 and 14 respectively. The Hokies won the battle on the glass, outrebounding Duke by six.

It was Duke’s hot shooting from inside the arc that allowed them to have a two-point lead at the very end. The score was 75-73 with just a second left. The Hokies drew up a lob play to Ahmed Hill that worked to perfection. Hill came free, and the pass was great. Hill’s momentum took the shot just offline and short so that it hit the front of the rim and did not go. For the second game in a row, Duke survived a last second missed shot to advance to the Elite Eight to play Michigan State.

Game 8: No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Houston

The final game of the Sweet Sixteen was between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Houston Cougars. The storyline coming in was the return of Kentucky star big man P.J. Washington, who had been out for two weeks prior to this game.

This game started out as a battle through the first 10 minutes with neither team able to sustain a lead or create separation. Then came Kentucky’s run. They finally took back the lead and put some distance between themselves and Houston before halftime with a 37-26 lead.

In the second half, Houston was slowly trying to get back in the game. In the last 7 minutes, Houston really started to close the gap. With 4:23 left, Houston’s Armoni Brooks, who hit some clutch threes on the way to a 20-point game, hit a three to tie the game at 49. From that point on, the game became a back-and-forth battle. The lead would change hands four times in the final few minutes.

Kentucky had a very solid game, especially late from Tyler Herro. Much as he has done all year, he hit the clutch shots that they needed on the way to leading the team with 19 points. P.J. Washington also posted 16 points in his return to the lineup. In the end, Kentucky had just enough to survive in a 62-58 win over Houston to advance to play Auburn on Sunday.

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