Auburn survives with OT victory
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The confetti was still swirling around Auburn coach Bruce Pearl when he gazed over a team headed to the first Final Four in school history and declared, “This one was for Chuma!”
“The next two,” Pearl added with a triumphant grin, “are for Auburn.”
Drawing inspiration from injured forward Chuma Okeke, the No. 5 seed Tigers finished off a joyful romp through college basketball royalty by bringing down the winningest program of all. Their 77-71 overtime win over second-seeded seed Kentucky in the finals of the Midwest Region on Sunday came after blowouts of Kansas and North Carolina that served notice: Auburn is more than a football school.
Jared Harper led the way with 26 points, including the tying basket in regulation and a crucial series of layups in overtime. Bryce Brown added 24 points and Anfernee McLemore came up big in the extra session, helping Auburn (30-9) set a school record for wins with its 12th straight overall.
“We wanted to make history,” Pearl said. “You have to understand, at Auburn in athletics, we’re not Cinderellas in anything. We’re really, really good in all those other sports. We win championships. Been a long time since men’s basketball has been good.”
Okeke was there in more than just spirit, too. The sophomore forward, who tore his ACL in the final minutes against the Tar Heels, was rolled behind the bench in a wheelchair early in the second half.
He was still there when the wild celebration finally began.
“Moving him to the gym, sitting him on the bench — he doesn’t want the camera on him,” Pearl said. “He must have been watching in the first half at the hotel and said, ‘I can’t stay here. I got to go.'”
The Tigers had only reached the Elite Eight once before, and that was 33 years ago. But after twice losing to Kentucky during the regular season, they rose to the occasion on the game’s biggest stage.