Auburn advanced to its second Elite Eight in program history as hot second-half shooting led the No. 5 seed Tigers to a 97-80 win over No. 1 seed North Carolina in a Midwest Regional semifinal on Friday night. The win places Auburn in the Elite Eight for the first time since 1986.
The Tar Heels are the first No. 1 seed to get eliminated from the 2019 NCAA tournament as Auburn shot 17-for-37 from three-point range after a sluggish first half (5-for-19) from the perimeter. Using a 14-0 run spanning halves, Auburn built a comfortable second-half lead once perimeter shots started to fall. The Tigers officially closed out the game with a late 7-0 run to build an 18-point lead with under two minutes left as Auburn outscored North Carolina 56-41 in the second half.
Sophomore Chuma Okeke (20 points, 11 rebounds) was a matchup nightmare for North Carolina as the versatile wing forward was outstanding for the Tigers. Okeke was tough to contain for Tar Heel senior forward Luke Maye before Okeke exited the game with a left knee injury with eight minutes left. Danjel Purifoy picked up the slack at forward, as he got hot from the perimeter to finish with 14 points on 4-for-6 three-point shooting. Guards Malik Dunbar (13 points), Bryce Brown (12 points) and J’Von McCormick (10 points) and also finished in double-figures for Auburn as five Tigers finished in double-figures.
This was a very balanced and impressive offensive effort for Auburn as they thoroughly outplayed one of the best teams in the country while both of their leading scorers, Brown (12 points) and Jared Harper (nine points, 11 assists) only combined for 21 points. The Tigers used multiple weapons who could space the floor and hit shots as undersized Auburn outplayed North Carolina on the interior while also hitting a flurry of second-half shots.
Auburn (29-9) started 2-4 in the SEC. It looked like the Tigers’ season might crumble. During a season in which the Tigers have been one of the main schools involved in the FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal, Auburn is one game away from its first Final Four appearance despite the distractions. Head coach Bruce Pearl and his veteran team never listened to what others predicted as they overcame the mid-season lull to look like a legit title contender.
With a team that can space the floor from all five spots, the Tigers have turned things around with an 11-game winning streak. They’re one of the hottest teams in the field. With timely perimeter shooting and an ability to turn other teams over, the Tigers can compete with any team in the country — particularly if multiple shooters get hot.
The Tigers cruised through the SEC tournament and they’re clearly playing with a lot of confidence over the last month of the season. Okeke’s health will be a concern if he can’t play in Sunday’s Elite Eight, but Purifoy did a great job of providing additional spacing and filling that role as Auburn does have depth.
North Carolina (29-7) struggled to get going in the second half as cold perimeter shooting (7-for-28) and turnover issues (14 turnovers) forced them into a big deficit. The Tar Heels had a couple players sick during the week, most notably senior Cameron Johnson (fever) and freshman forward Nassir Little (flu), as North Carolina didn’t appear to have the same energy as usual. It didn’t help the Tar Heels when Auburn poured on an avalanche of threes in the second half.
Freshman guard Coby White stayed in attack mode, but he struggled to remain efficient, as he finished with 15 points on 4-for-15 shooting. In his final college game, Maye had 13 points and seven rebounds. Johnson shook off a slow start to finish with 15 points while senior guard Kenny Williams (10 points) also finished in double-figures.
The Tar Heels found an opponent comfortable playing fast and putting up offense in a hurry as the tempo of North Carolina didn’t bother Auburn. Once the Tigers delivered a bunch of three-pointers early in the second half, North Carolina failed to counter with consistent enough offense.
Although this is a disappointing tournament exit for North Carolina, this season still gave the Tar Heels a share of the ACC title while pushing into the second weekend for the fourth time in five seasons. Seniors like Maye, Johnson and Williams were a huge part of a great stretch of success for the program. If White leaves for the NBA, he’ll have exceeded expectations as the team’s lead guard as he was successful most of the time in his transition from playing more off the ball. The Tar Heels just ran into the wrong team as the wrong time as Auburn looks like the top-10 team we thought they were earlier this season.
Auburn advances to face the winner of No. 2 seed Kentucky and No. 3 seed Houston on Sunday in the Elite Eight in Kansas City. The Tigers lost to the Wildcats in the SEC play during the season with an 80-53 loss on Feb. 23. The health of Kentucky forward P.J. Washington, who had a big game in the first matchup, would be something to monitor if the Wildcats were to defeat Houston.