The euphoria of reaching the Elite Eight for the first time in 33 years had already worn off and Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was left to arrange his bravest smile on his face.
His trigger-happy Tigers were moving on in the NCAA Tournament.
They were doing it without their most versatile player.
Behind yet another 3-point barrage, No. 5 seed Auburn overcame a slow start to roar past top-seeded North Carolina 97-80 in the Midwest Region semifinals Friday night. But the victory came only after sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, who already had scored a game-high 20 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, sustained a gruesome injury to his left knee in the closing minutes of the game.
“It’s a bittersweet accomplishment because of Chuma getting hurt,” Pearl conceded. “In a game full of guys that have a chance to play at the next level, I thought he was the best player.”
Yet he didn’t do it alone. And that should give the Tigers (29-9), who matched the 1998-99 team for most wins in school history, some confidence as they aim for their first Final Four.
Malik Dunbar finished with 13 points, Bryce Brown and Danjel Purifoy scored 12 apiece, and Jared Harper scored nine while dishing out 11 assists in Auburn’s latest takedown of college hoops royalty.
It was Kansas last week. It was North Carolina on Friday night. It could be Kentucky next, after the Wildcats survived Houston’s comeback bid for a 62-58 victory in the second semifinal.
That trio represents the three winningest programs in Division I history.
“Three games away. That’s the bottom line,” said Brown, the catalyst of a team that rained in 17 3-pointers against the Tar Heels. “I want to lead my guys to a national championship.”
The Tar Heels’ own title aspirations may have been brought down by the flu bug.
Leading scorer Cameron Johnson spiked a fever Thursday night, and he wound up going 4 of 11 from the floor and scoring 15 points. Top bench player Nassir Little didn’t practice all week with the same symptoms, and he wound up scoring four points in just 12 minutes.
“Nassir didn’t have the same lift and Cam wasn’t the same person on the court, but those are just excuses,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose team was the first No. 1 seed to go down.
Auburn-Carolina was the track meet everyone anticipated from the opening tip, the only difference that the Tar Heels preferred to go to the basket while the Tigers kept pulling up for 3s.
Early on, they didn’t make nearly enough.
Yet they managed to track down all the long boards, allowing Pearl’s team to hang tough on the glass against the team with the nation’s No. 1 rebounding differential. That in turn gave them second and third chances down floor, and allowed Auburn to take a 41-39 lead into the break.
The Tigers’ run eventually reached 14-0 spanning halftime, giving them the first double-digit lead of the game. Williams finally relented and called timeout, and the genteel North Carolina coach with the aw-shucks disposition spent most of it savagely ripping into his bench.
The Tar Heels responded, at least for a while. But even when Maye and Johnson managed to trim their deficit to 60-54 with 13 minutes left, and a building solidly packed with Carolina blue began to stir, a brazen bunch of Tigers answered by rejecting a pair of dunks and knocking down a 3.
Or two or three of them.
In fact, they knocked down five straight 3s at one point. Purifoy had two, prompting Williams to ask, “Who has No. 3!?” The answer was nobody: Purifoy knocked down another for good measure.
“I’ll never use that halftime talk again,” Williams said, “because it sure as dickens didn’t work.”
The Tigers’ momentum finally slowed when Okeke’s left knee buckled on the way to the basket. The sophomore forward crumpled to the floor along the baseline, rolling around in agony and disappointment, and it eventually took two trainers to help him limp to the locker room.
“We think it could be serious,” Pearl said. “In those moments you begin to see what these guys are made of, the fabric. Our guys started to pray, and asked God to watch over our brother.”
Then the Tigers gave him something good to watch in the locker room.
Brown knocked down one more 3 to give the Tigers an 88-72 lead with 2:12 left, then took a steal for an emphatic breakaway dunk that the left the backboard shaking, and a single section sporting orange opposite the Auburn bench joined the celebration with a team headed back to the Elite Eight.
“I’m really proud of our team,” Okeke said through a team spokesman. “We were able to make history tonight. We do not drop off when we go to our bench and we’ll be ready for whoever we play on Sunday.”
Auburn was dynamic from the perimeter but dreadful from the foul line, going 8 of 17. It was a wonder North Carolina didn’t start fouling with about 5 minutes left, particularly the way the Tigers were shooting it from everywhere else.
North Carolina was 7 of 28 from the 3-point line, numbers that simply didn’t add up against Auburn’s barrage. Now the question becomes who will leave for the NBA? The Tar Heels have plenty of top pro prospects, and those upcoming decisions will largely shape next season.
Auburn will face the Wildcats on Sunday afternoon for a spot in the Final Four. The Tigers have faced Kentucky twice this season, losing close at home before getting blown out at Rupp Arena.
SOURCE: DAVE SKRETTA, AP