KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Auburn senior guard Bryce Brown sat, heartbroken, shaking his head Saturday afternoon as head coach Bruce Pearl told the media that Chuma Okeke had indeed torn his ACL and would be out for much more than the rest of the tournament.
The Tigers’ worst nightmare has come true, and it could not have come at a worse time for the team with the longest active winning streak in Division-I (11 games).
The message is clear: Keep winning for their humble star who carried them here in the first place.
“I don't know. It's just hard to take in,” Brown said. “I mean Chuma, he doesn't deserve that at all. He worked so hard, spent so much time in the gym and making sure his body is right. It's our jobs to pick him up, lift him up, encourage him, and all we want to do at this point is go out there and play for him. We're going to use it as motivation. Hopefully we can do this for our boy.”
Okeke, who was projected as a potential first-round pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, couldn’t be stopped Friday night against top-seeded North Carolina. Whether he was facing Luke Maye or Nassir Little, the Atlanta native was getting whatever he wanted. He finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds on 8-of-11 shooting, including 3-of-5 from 3-point range.
“It's tough to lose Chuma,” Jared Harper said. “Like I said yesterday, I felt like he's our most valuable player for our team, all the things that he's able to do in the court, guard 1 through 5, be able to smooth from perimeter, score inside and just do all those things. I know we're going to get that production of all those things he did from all of us. It's going to take all of us, not just one single player.”
Auburn will face the 5-seed Kentucky, who was the last opponent this team lost to, Sunday afternoon. When they played inside Rupp Arena in February, the Wildcats overwhelmed the Tigers with both their size and perimeter shooting.
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PJ Washington, who had not played until Friday night against Houston with a sprained foot, is expected to be ready to go again on Sunday. Washington, who leads Kentucky in scoring as well as rebounding, dropped 16 points off the bench in their Sweet 16 victory and scored 24 points, and made five 3-pointers, the last time these two teams met.
“PJ very easily could have been the National Player of the Year if Kentucky had won one or two more games,” Pearl said. “… He's a dominating player. Great story of a guy that you know would have gotten drafted a year ago, but probably would have gotten in the second round and decided to come back. Wasn't afraid to work. He's so much better now, explosive inside, outside game. He was the only player Chuma Okeke faced all year long that maybe got the edge on him, the only player.”
Kentucky head coach John Calipari alluded to how difficult it is to win in the NCAA Tournament without your best player, in reference to his team and the effect that Washington has on the game.
Now, Auburn finds itself in similar situation, but with only one day to adjust. Pearl, however, believes his team is deep enough to get to the first Final Four in program history.
“Listen, we've got nine players that are going to play tomorrow, and we're going to have to make some adjustments to how we play and what we do,” Pearl said. “But our guys are ready to be able to accept that challenge. We understand the enormity of the challenge, even if our roster was full and complete. So when you lose, as Jared said, our most valuable player and for me the guy that I would play call to matchup, it's going to be an enormous challenge, but our guys are excited about it.
Auburn’s bench, right on cue, outscored North Carolina 40-21 in Friday night’s Sweet 16 blowout. Danjel Purifoy, J’Von McCormick, and Samir Doughty all scored in double figures off the bench. Purifoy, who scored 12 points off of 4-of-6 shooting from 3-point territory, will be leaned on even more at the forward position in Okeke’s absence.
Pearl also said that Horace Spencer, Anfernee McLemore, and Austin Wiley will all have to step up and contribute more than usual Sunday, but there was no panic in the coach’s voice.
“There's confidence in our locker room,” Pearl said. “Horace Spencer, Anfernee McLemore, Danjel Purifoy, Austin Wiley, that's our front line without Chuma. Those guys are all ready to step up. They're going to have to step up or we won't be able to win.”
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