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A spirit that is not afraid

Giant killers: Auburn takes down Kentucky, headed to first-ever Final Four

Auburn is headed to its first Final Four in program history.

<p>Bruce Pearl. Auburn men's basketball vs Kentucky during the NCAA Midwest Regional final on Sunday, March 31, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo.</p>

Bruce Pearl. Auburn men's basketball vs Kentucky during the NCAA Midwest Regional final on Sunday, March 31, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was only fitting that Jared Harper had the ball in his hands when the buzzer sounded.

The 5-foot-11 Auburn point guard grabbed the rebound, dribbled to halfcourt and heaved the ball into the air in jubilation as the clock expired in overtime, before jumping into his teammate’s arms.

Harper, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional, finished with 26 points, 12 of which came in the extra period, as 5-seed Auburn knocked off 2-seed Kentucky, 77-71 inside the Sprint Center on Sunday afternoon to advance to its first Final Four in program history.

"I just can’t believe it,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. “When you hear the fact that Auburn is going to its first Final Four ever. The road we had to travel (teams they had to beat) ... There’s a lot of underdogs out here. A lot of second-chance kids out here, and we overcame.”

The Tigers managed to upset their second straight top-2 seed in three days, after defeating North Carolina on Friday night, and did it Sunday without its most valuable player, Chuma Okeke, who was sidelined with an ACL injury.

Harper and senior guard Bryce Brown combined for 50 points after starting the game 0-for-5 from beyond the arc, and Auburn scored 14 points off turnovers after racking up 10 steals in Okeke’s absence.

"It means everything,” Brown said. “It means the world. Above all, I have to thank the man upstairs. He blessed this team in so many ways. We did this whole thing for Chuma, but we missed him. He is one of our best players.”

The Tigers trailed by as many as 11 in the first half but used an 11-4 run to close the gap to 35-30 at halftime, despite shooting 3-for-11 from 3-point territory and failing to have one player in double digits.

After the break, Brown refused to let Sunday be his last game in an Auburn uniform.

Auburn opened the second half on a 12-2 run, with the senior going on a 8-0 run by himself during that span, to take its first lead of the game, 42-39. Brown finished with 24 points on 8-of-12 from the field and 4-of-7 from beyond the arc.

"As the game goes on, I get better,” Brown said. “My teammates just continue to encourage me. My coaches continue to have confidence in me. I knew I had to be big (today), no matter if I was going to go 0-for-20 or 20-for-20, I had to be big for my team. I had to turn it around.”

After back-to-back blocks by Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore on the defensive end, Brown came down with the ball, and with only 12 seconds left in regulation, for a chance to take the final shot and send the Tigers to the next round. 

Brown got trapped just past midcourt and had to give the ball up to Spencer, whose last-second attempt went begging off the backboard as the regulation horn sounded.

The game went to overtime all square at 60-60.

"We work on this every day,” Pearl said jokingly after the game. “Get the ball to Horace Spencer for the three ... 3-2-1, it’s just so well-coached.”

In overtime, the smallest player on the court made the biggest impact. Harper, whom Pearl constantly refers to as his quarterback and floor general, willed his team to the finish line, driving past every Wildcat defender time after time down the stretch. The Mableton, Georgia, native put the game away going a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line in the extra period.

"There’s not much to say,” Harper said. “It was a tough game, a tough fight. It’s a tribute to all my teammates, and how hard we played this whole game. We stayed together to continue to do what we did, and we had a great second half.”

Auburn, even without its starting forward and with Spencer fouling out in overtime, was only out-rebounded by four to Kentucky, 41-37. The Tigers finished with the advantage on the offensive glass, grabbing 12 rebounds compared to 11 for the Wildcats.

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The Tigers have won 12 straight, are undefeated in the month of March and have beaten the top three all-time winningest teams in Division-I college basketball history (Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky) in as many games en route to their first Final Four in school history.

Auburn now travels to Minneapolis and will face yet another 1-seed, Virginia, in the Final Four on Saturday.

After the game, Pearl sat at the podium as the moderator introduced he and his trio of guards as the Midwest Regional Champions.

“The Auburn Tigers are heading to the Final Four,” the moderator said before opening it up for questions.

Pearl paused, let the statement sink in, and looked over: “Could I ask you one favor? Could you say the very first part of what you said when you introduced us?”

“The Auburn Tigers going to the Final Four are with us,” he repeated.

Pearl smiled.

“Thank you, sir.”

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