KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Party like its 1986.
No one, not even Bruce Pearl, saw this coming. On one side of the court, there was the blueblood and perennial powerhouse, 1-seed North Carolina, with its sea of powder blue, sitting stunned. On the other, the SEC Tournament Champions and an outnumbered fan base that never sat down, not once, soaking in what they thought would never happen.
It was electric.
Auburn could taste it, even with 9:00 left in the game. After Danjel Purifoy knocked down three straight 3-pointers, Anfernee McLemore launched a 3-pointer of his own from the top of the key and banked it in off the backboard to cap a 16-3 run, putting the Tigers up 76-57.
McLemore turned around, looked up as if to thank someone above, and threw his hands up in the air with a smile like this team could do no wrong.
Auburn made 17 3-pointers and had six different players score in double figures as it knocked off 1-seed North Carolina 97-80 Friday night in the Sprint Center to advance to its first Elite Eight since 1986.
The win doesn’t come without adversity, however. Chuma Okeke, who led the Tigers with 20 points and 11 rebounds, left the game late in the second half with a knee injury and is not expected to play for the rest of the tournament.
“We’re pretty emotional because it’s a bittersweet accomplishment because of Chuma getting hurt late in the game,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. “Nobody works harder; nobody gives us more courage… So we’re disappointed he may be lost, but we are very, very grateful to be moving on and representing the SEC and Auburn in the Elite 8.”
Auburn ran with North Carolina from the get-go and took blow after blow, beating the Tar Heels at their own game, an accomplishment that many thought was not possible despite Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combining for two points in the first half.
It was truly a team effort for the Tigers, and that could not have been proven any more than when Auburn weathered the Tar Heels' run after Okeke, arguably the Tigers’ most valuable player, exited the game in the second half.
The Tigers bench accounted for 40 points compared to only 21 for North Carolina. Purifoy had one of the better games of his career, scoring 12 points, all from beyond the arc on 4-of-6 shooting.
J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty stepped up when Harper had to sit in the first half with foul trouble, each adding 10 points apiece. Malik Dunbar scored 13 points on 3-of-7 from deep.
And Bryce Brown, who failed to score in the first half, finished with 12 points and two 3-pointers.
“We knew we could hit them,” Dunbar said. “We have a lot of guys who can knock ‘em down and tonight we just got on a roll.”
Auburn went into halftime with a 41-39 lead but opened the second half on a 10-0 run, with deep balls from Harper and Brown to extend their lead and set the tone.
“Well, we are who we are,” Pearl said. “Bryce didn’t score in the first half, and I was probably on him more for his defense than it was for his offense. We knew he would come around… Jared is pretty – you know, some offensive coordinators, they should be a little bit harder to read. Jared is almost always going to go to the hot hand, and I just stayed out of the way.”
When Okeke went down, chants of ‘Chuma!’ were echoing throughout the arena, and every single Auburn player and staff member locked arms and went to surround their teammate in prayer under the basket.
“Player down,” Brown said. “One of our best rebounders down. One of our best defenders. Just trying to pull it out for him. If he was out there, he would’ve done the same. The message was ‘let’s do it for him.’"
Auburn will play in its first Elite Eight since 1986, which is also the last time it knocked off a No. 1 seed (St. John’s) in the NCAA Tournament, and is now one win away from its first Final Four in program history.
"I'm a senior,” Brown said. “I'm the leader of this team and I want to be able to lead my guys to a National Championship. (This is) an 11-game winning streak... three more games is nothing."
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