The Auburn Tigers have reached the Final Four for the first time in program history after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats 77-71 in overtime in Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup.
For the Tigers, the third time was the charm, after dropping the previous two meetings this season to Kentucky. Luckily for Auburn, they won the one that mattered. As stated, this win secures Auburn a spot in the Final Four, but how did they do it? How did Auburn climb the symbolic mountain of the historic Kentucky Wildcats program?
The game did not start well for the Tigers as they found themselves in a 7-0 hole early, and even trailed by as much as 11 at one point. Auburn could not buy a 3-pointer in the first half either, which has been an integral part of Auburn’s tournament success. Auburn looked uncomfortable from the jump. On the other side, Kentucky was firing on all cylinders early. The Wildcats were physically imposing primarily lead by sophomore forward PJ Washington, who had missed Kentucky’s first two tournament games with a foot injury. Washington finished the game with 28 points and 13 rebounds, to put into perspective his dominance inside.
Despite all of this going against the Tigers, they found themselves only trailing by 5 points with the score sitting at 35-30. Auburn found a little bit of rhythm going into the half and it carried over in the second half.
A main theme of the game was Kentucky’s defense in regards to the three. The Wildcats were covering out and not allowing the Tigers anything easy from downtown. Kentucky dared Auburn to beat them with interior scoring… and they did.
Whether it was point guard Jared Harper driving to the basket for contested layups, guard Bryce Brown knocking don mid-ranger jumpers, or forward Anfernee McLemore finishing it off in the post, the Tigers found ways to score, even if it was different than what the Tigers were used to. Harper and Brown finished with 26 and 24 points respectively.
The turning point for the Tigers was when Auburn forward Chuma Okeke arrived at the stadium. Okeke suffered a torn ACL in Friday’s game against North Carolina and watched the first half from the team hotel.
“He said he was in too much pain,” said Brown, when asked about his knowledge of Okeke coming to the game. It was a shock to the Tigers to see Okeke arrive in a wheelchair to support his teammates.
“He must have been watching the first half and saw we needed him,” said head coach Bruce Pearl.
Okeke’s arrival was an immediate impact. Brown was happily, jumping before going over to talk to Okeke, and the crowd erupted in chants of, “Chuma.” It rallied the team’s spirit and the ignited the fans.
All of these factors lead to Auburn’s most important win in program history. The Tigers advanced to the Final Four by defeating Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky, the three most winningest teams in college basketball history, solidifying a program’s place in the national landscape.
The Tigers have a stern test waiting for them in Minneapolis as they will take on the East Region and ACC regular season champs in the Virginia Cavaliers. The Cavaliers are a team known for stout defense, but the electric Auburn offense will be a daunting task for Virginia. It comes down to the age-old paradox, an immovable object vs. an unstoppable force. Only time will tell, which side will win.
Auburn and Virginia will tip-off 5:09 p.m. CT from US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis Saturday April 6, game broadcast will be on CBS.