Up to that moment, the Sweet 16 win against UNC was arguably Auburn’s greatest win in program history, but the team was heartbroken as its most valuable player left the game grimacing in pain with a torn ACL.
Head coach Bruce Pearl could hardly muster words through tears when he was asked postgame about Chuma Okeke’s gruesome injury that will require surgery.
Immediately following the game, Auburn players took to social media with the hashtag #DoitforChuma to rally around their brother, and that’s exactly what they did.
Emotional support aside, the Elite Eight matchup against 2-seed Kentucky appeared daunting without Auburn's best player, especially considering Auburn’s last loss came at the hands of the Wildcats 80-53 on Feb. 23 in what Pearl called embarrassing.
Questions surrounded how the team would be able to replace its leading rebounder, third-leading scorer and most versatile defender to be able to hang with the team with first-round picks all up and down the roster.
The Tigers didn’t have a single answer to how they would replace Okeke — they had many.
Auburn used a collective effort and contributions from a multitude of players to be able to oust Kentucky 77-71 and advance to its first Final Four in school history.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
Okeke’s absence was on full display in the first half as the offense sputtered, and the team was having to run completely different sets. Seeing a deficit as large as 11 in the first 20 minutes, Auburn slogged its way to a 35-30 halftime deficit, shooting a mere 3-of-11 from beyond the arc.
“These guys will tell you that there’s no question we missed Chuma because you can’t replace him,” Pearl said. “He’s our most-valuable player. He’s kind of our go-to guy.”
The offense has been facilitated through Okeke throughout the year, but Auburn also missed him defensively as Kentucky’s star player, and likely matchup for Okeke, P.J. Washington went for 15 in the first half.
Okeke wasn’t just absent from the game. He was literally absent from the Sprint Center. Watching the game from the hotel and nursing his injury, Okeke decided to come for the second half. Dramatically, he was wheeled into the arena and sat right behind his brothers as the second half was getting started.
The timing of his arrival couldn’t have been more fitting. His mere presence seemed to bring the team to life.
On the year, the three-leading scorers -- Okeke, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper -- have collectively averaged 43.0 points per game. Harper and Brown offensively made up for Okeke’s loss and then some, combining for 50.
Brown came out of the break firing, going on an 8-0 run by himself, and the team went on a 12-2 extended run to capture the lead. Brown remained hot for the rest of the half, hitting multiple mid-range shots to score 17 of his 24 in the second 20 minutes.
“When I tried to drive, I seen that the defense wasn’t stepping up, so I tried to stop on a dime and pull up for my mid-range shot because they were running me off the 3-point line as well,” Brown said. “That looked to be one of the only shots I was able to get late.”
His backcourt partner Harper took over late in the half an in overtime and helped fill the offensive void that Okeke’s absence left. Harper repeatedly blasted past his defender, getting to the rim and free-throw line to score 12 of his 26 points in the overtime period.
The offensive performance had little to do with the barrage of 3s Auburn is known for. A large part of why the team averages 14 3s per game in the tournament was due to Okeke’s length and his ability to spread the floor. Without it, Auburn was 7-of-23 and had to rely on getting inside the paint.
“I feel like they were trying to limit our 3 ball tonight, and Kentucky is not a team that usually helps off the wings,” Harper said. “We had to drive and get downhill, make tough 2s and continue to play our game.”
Horace Spencer, Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore and Danjel Purifoy all stepped up big to in replace the massive void Okeke’s injury created down low and on the defensive side of the court.
“They (the team) have confidence in Anfernee, Austin, Danjel and Horace,” Pearl said. “They do. They’re different. And so, I think that confidence going in, our guys didn’t think we can’t win without him. We may miss him, but the other guys would step up.”
The Tigers have been consistently out-rebounded throughout the year, but the collective effort kept the rebounding deficit respectable at 41-37 and allowed the Tigers to have much-needed possessions and limited Kentucky’s second-chance points.
Purifoy led the way with seven rebounds and McLemore and Spencer contributed as well with five and three, respectively.
“Big part of what we do is offensive rebounding,” said Kentucky center Reid Travis. “They just came out, trying to be more physical.”
The crew rotated in and out doing everything they could to limit Washington, who finished with 28 points and 13 boards.
Auburn as a team had seven blocks, two of which McLemore had in the last minute of overtime.
Samir Doughty added another seven rebounds and virtually shut down Tyler Herro, Kentucky’s second-leading scorer, holding him to just seven points.
“Samir Doughty locked up one of the best offensive players in this tournament in Tyler Herro,” Pearl said. “That made them go to Washington almost exclusively.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari praised Auburn’s physicality and ability to get Kentucky off its game.
“I got to give Auburn credit for really getting up in and bumping and grinding and doing some stuff that got these guys a little off kilter,” he said.
Auburn faced foul trouble during the entire second half. Spencer had his night cut short as he fouled out in overtime. Malik Dunbar and McLemore each finished with four, and Purifoy and Wiley had three apiece as well.
Each position was one Okeke would have been able to fill, which is why having nine players see double-digit minutes was crucial.
“Dr. Tom Davis taught me that you don’t short your bench in the playoffs or in tournament time,” Pearl said. “You trust the rest of those guys. We played our rotations. Got to trust them.”
Auburn could not have had the historic season it has had without Okeke. With their team and brother watching from the hotel, they thought they’d have to do it without him.
Yet, the inspirational entrance meant he was still with them. With the net draped around Okeke’s neck, the sophomore stamping Auburn into the Final Four at mid-court, Auburn realized the greatest season in school history, and they did it for Okeke.
“I feel like this whole game we really wanted to do this for Chuma and the Auburn Family,” Brown said. “They supported us so much. But I think it just goes back to trusting each other and just doing what we needed to do to win the game.”
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman