KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When the Auburn bench jumped to its feet and rushed the court to celebrate as the final buzzer sounded, a face peeked out from between blue-and-orange-clad bodies.
Temporarily left behind, Chuma Okeke sat in a wheelchair, left leg braced and elevated. But it didn’t take long for his team to rush to his side, bringing him into the middle of the chaos as Auburn made its first Final Four.
No. 5 seed Auburn took down No. 2 seed and Southeastern Conference foe Kentucky 77-71 in overtime Sunday at Sprint Center, earning the Midwest Region title and a trip to Minneapolis next weekend. The Tigers will take on No. 1 Virginia, looking to drop their second top seed of this tournament.
Okeke was the leading scorer in that Sweet 16 game against regional No. 1 North Carolina with 20 points and 11 rebounds when his left knee buckled on a plant with eight minutes to play. He tore his ACL and will have surgery Tuesday.
The sophomore forward was supposed to be watching the game from the team hotel with his family, in too much pain physically and emotionally to join his team on the sideline. But at halftime, the team learned Okeke was on his way, and he rolled out onto the court shortly after Auburn’s 12-4 comeback run to start the second half gave it the lead for the first time.
He’s a player teammates termed their MVP. Someone integral to their squad, on the court and off it. Someone wholly undeserving of such a horribly timed injury.
“That one right there was for Chuma Okeke,” an emotional coach Bruce Pearl shouted into the microphone during the team’s on-court award presentation before handing off the trophy to Okeke in his chair below the stage.
Junior guard Jared Harper and senior guard Bryce Brown carried the weight for the Tigers, scoring 26 and 24 points, respectively. It was enough to nullify an outstanding double-double performance from Kentucky’s PJ Washington, who finished with a game-high 28 points and 13 rebounds.
Kentucky had an 11-point lead at one point in the first half, its defense stifling a usually high-scoring Auburn. What inspired the turnaround is obvious.
“Chuma,” Brown said. “I feel like that was on our mind the whole entire game. We could have easily folded, but I think people reminded us of why we’re here, and who we’re going to do it for. … That was the motivation the whole way.”
Brown and Okeke made the all-regional team, as did Harper, who also earned the Most Outstanding Player honor. They helped Auburn become only the second team to defeat Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky — the three winningest teams in college basketball — on its way to a Final Four appearance.
Auburn might not rank in that group, but it is the hottest team in college basketball, with a 12-game win streak.
Pearl said besides Brown and Harper, Okeke was the team’s “go-to guy.” But without him, such players as junior forward Anfernee McLemore, junior center Austin Wiley, junior forward Danjel Purifoy and senior forward Horace Spencer chipped in bits and pieces to fill the hole.
Junior guard Samir Doughty also led a strong defensive effort, especially in the second half, limiting Kentucky’s second-best scorer, Tyler Herro, to seven points.
“I think this goes to a whole team effort,” Harper said. “Coming into the season, our goals were to go to the Final Four and be able to compete for a national championship. I think our whole work this whole summer and the preseason and during the whole season was for this exact moment right here for what we want to do as a team and how we want to build on our legacy as a team.”
Auburn now must overcome Virginia on Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium if it wants a shot at No. 2 Michigan State or No. 3 Texas Tech in the title game. The Elite Eight win was dedicated to a fallen teammate, but the upcoming games are in the name of something greater.
“The next couple, if we can get them,” Pearl said, “would be for Auburn.”