Auburn advanced to the first Final Four in program history with a 77-71 overtime win over No. 2 seed Kentucky on Sunday afternoon in the Midwest Region.
Trailing by five at halftime, the Tigers started the second half on a 12-2 run to take their first lead of the game before a back-and-forth battle ensued the rest of the way. Bryce Brown got hot to keep Auburn in the game with a flurry of second-half points as he almost single-handedly led the Tigers back in the game with 24 points. After going scoreless the first eight minutes, Brown and junior guard Jared Harper (26 points) took over as they combined to score 50 points. Both guards got going after the slow start as Auburn won thanks to the potent duo taking over. After a flurry of three-pointers to score 97 points to beat No. 1 seed North Carolina on Friday, the Wildcats held Auburn to only 7-for-23 three-point shooting on Sunday.
Playing without starting forward Chuma Okeke (torn ACL suffered in Friday’s win), an emotional Auburn was led by its potent perimeter with other players chipping in on both ends. Brown got whatever look he wanted with step-back elbow jumpers while Harper did significant damage going to the rim late in regulation and overtime. Anfernee McLemore also chipped in eight points and five rebounds for the Tigers.
A No. 5 seed, Auburn advances to face No. 1 seed Virginia in next Saturday’s Final Four in Minneapolis. Although the Tigers (30-9) are missing Okeke at this point in the season, they are still a very dangerous team thanks to their balance and potent scoring from the perimeter.
Even though Auburn was a top-ten team earlier this season, nobody expected the Tigers to be playing in next weekend’s Final Four. Struggling early in SEC play, last season’s co-SEC champions looked sluggish at times against average competition. Things changed in the final weeks of the season. Auburn showed flashes of brilliance with four wins in four days at the SEC tournament in Nashville as they maintained the hot streak into the NCAA tournament.
Surviving a first-round comeback scare against No. 12 seed New Mexico State after blowing a double-digit second-half lead, the Tigers have dispatched Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in three straight games — three of the winningest programs in men’s college hoops.
During a season in which Auburn was dealing with issues with the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption, the Tigers have ignored off-the-court issues and late-season losses to players like Okeke to make an unlikely Final Four run. Having head coach Bruce Pearl in the Final Four should make things fun as Auburn can stay with any team left in the field if they continue to force turnovers and get perimeter scoring.
Losing twice to Kentucky during the regular season, Auburn got revenge with a win in the third matchup to reach the sport’s final weekend. On Feb. 23, the Tigers lost 80-53 in Lexington as they were an unranked team trying to figure things out. Since then, Auburn hasn’t lost a game, as they’ve won 12 straight games and enter the Final Four as the hottest team left in the field.
Kentucky (30-7) jumped out to an early 17-7 lead before Auburn fought back to close within two points right before halftime. The Wildcats had chances to push ahead but cold three-point shooting (5-for-21 threes) and shaky free-throw shooting (12-for-21) prevented Kentucky from pulling away.
After not playing in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament with a hard cast on his foot, sophomore P.J. Washington continued a heroic weekend as he finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds against the Tigers.
Washington scored 15 first-half points to carry Kentucky early as he looked unstoppable. After a sluggish start to the second half, Washington became the team’s go-to player in the final minutes. Washington just didn’t have enough consistent offensive help to get to the Final Four from his teammates.
Freshmen guards Keldon Johnson (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Ashton Hagans (10 points) both finished in double-figures, but freshman wing Tyler Herro (seven points, 3-for-11 shooting) struggled to get going after a good game on Friday. Hagans also had seven turnovers as the Wildcats had 14 for the game.
With the Midwest Region losing the No. 1 seed in North Carolina, it looked like a path opened up for Kentucky to make another Final Four run after beating Auburn twice during the season. But as was the case last season, the Wildcats were knocked out by a lower seed before the Final Four, as this loss to Auburn will undoubtedly feel like a major disappointment to close the season.
As is the case in most offseasons, Kentucky will reload with (at least) three more five-star freshmen as Tyrese Maxey, Keion Brooks and wing Kahlil Whitney come in for the Wildcats. Some key pieces like Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and E.J. Montgomery could also return for Kentucky. But facing the loss of players like Washington, Herro and Johnson (along with Reid Travis) could make it tough for the Wildcats to reach this spot again next season. It’ll be interesting to see who else Kentucky will add before we get to fall practice.