KANSAS CITY, MO. – Bryce Brown stood at center court, hands fisted, arms ramrod-straight at his sides, and stuck out his bottom lip to the crowd saturated in North Carolina blue.
He had just capitalized on a lost-ball turnover — a specialty of his Auburn team — from the No. 1 seed, chasing the ball down for a rattling dunk. After the doubts his fifth-seeded Tigers could keep up with the Tar Heels and after losing a key teammate to a shocking injury, Brown was witnessing Auburn advance past the Sweet 16 for only the second time in its history by beating North Carolina 97-80 on Friday in a Midwest Region semifinal.
“Deal sealed. Mission accomplished. Elite Eight,” was the mantra running through Brown’s mind, he said, in that moment.
While Brown, Auburn’s leading scorer, found his game in the second half, as did second-leading scorer and fellow guard Jared Harper, it was sophomore forward Chuma Okeke who picked up the slack. He was leading the way with 20 points and 11 rebounds and looking to add more when his left knee buckled with about eight minutes to play. He could barely hop back to the locker room after his team huddled around him in prayer.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was in tears after the game, trying to put into words what likely losing Okeke because of a knee injury that “could be serious” meant.
“Nobody works harder. Nobody gives us more courage,” Pearl said. “… In a game full of guys who have got a chance to play at the next level, I thought he was the best player. And that has happened a lot to us this year.”
Despite that bittersweet note, the game lived up to the anticipation of two breakneck-speed teams colliding. The longest the score seemed to stay the same were several moments throughout the game when the Sprint Center’s Jumbotron froze. Even technology couldn’t keep up with these teams.
It was a welcome change from some clunkers of games the night before in the NCAA tournament. While every possession might have not led to a score, it seemed like each one ended in some momentum shift, whether a block, steal or turnover.
Those, at least, Auburn is known for, forcing turnovers and capitalizing on them. The Tigers scored 19 points off turnovers while giving up only six to North Carolina. What’s more surprising is Auburn’s rebounding. Facing the Tar Heels, who led the nation with a 10.5 rebounding margin entering this game, Auburn turned around its 229th-best minus-1.1 margin to snag 36 rebounds to North Carolina’s 40.
Despite those numbers, the mood was noticeably subdued after the game. Auburn wasn’t raucously celebrating like a team that had matched its program’s best previous NCAA tournament run from 1986 and extended its win streak to 11 games.
Minds were still on Okeke. The injury even affected North Carolina. The team joined Auburn in immediately wishing Okeke well after he was hurt.
“Three of our guys started going [over to Okeke] without me saying anything, and then I motioned for the other two guys to go down there. They realized it. Our guys were going to go without me saying anything,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “And I love that kind of thing. Because I want us to compete like crazy. I want to beat your rear end as bad as I can beat you, but I love the competition part of it.”
Auburn will face No. 2 seed Kentucky, a 62-58 winner over No. 3 Houston in Friday’s late game, on Sunday for a chance to go to the Final Four in Minneapolis. But while the Tigers put old uncertainties to rest, new ones emerged.
“I felt like that’s the next thing: People are going to doubt us now because we don’t have Chuma,” Brown said. “You know, when people doubt us, that’s when I feel like we’re at our best.
“… Being underdogs. I have no problem with that.”