Auburn advanced to the Final Four without starting forward Chuma Okeke on Sunday but the Tigers still had the sophomore on the sidelines despite his recent knee injury.
Suffering a torn ACL in the win over North Carolina in the Sweet 16 on Friday night, Okeke was wheeled into the arena for the second half as he watched Auburn close out SEC-rival Kentucky to advance to the Final Four for the first time.
After the Tigers and head coach Bruce Pearl secured the win to advance to Minneapolis, Okeke also added the Auburn name to the next part of the bracket — something he also did on Friday after the win over the Tar Heels.
Okeke is out for the rest of the NCAA tournament, as he’s scheduled to have surgery early this week. It’s hard to say if Okeke will be in Minneapolis if he’s scheduled for an operation, but the Tigers have used the injured forward to give them an emotional lift.
Auburn earned a blowout win over No. 1 seed North Carolina on Friday night to advance to the program’s second Elite Eight appearance in school history.
But the Tigers had to move on without sophomore wing Chuma Okeke as he left a memorable effort with a little over eight minutes left in the second half after sustaining a potentially-serious left knee injury. Okeke had 20 points and 11 rebounds as his inside/outside versatility was a huge reason Auburn built a double-digit second-half lead. Scoring from all levels of the floor, Okeke went down and clutched his left knee under the basket as he was helped off the floor and didn’t return.
“You know, we think it’s serious. He’s going to go get examined,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said of Okeke to Andy Katz after the game. “And he was the best player on the floor — and he’s been this way since mid-February. So versatile; such a hard worker. Our heart really aches for him right now. And we’re going to have to find a way to kind of figure out how we can survive and advance without him.”
Although no status has officially been given on Okeke yet, that quote from Pearl makes it seem as though the sophomore could be done for at least the rest of the weekend. An MRI is scheduled for Okeke on Saturday.
A red-hot No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region, the Tigers could turn to Danjel Purifoy. Stepping up with 14 points and four three-pointers in the North Carolina win, Purifoy’s shooting could be a subplot to watch on Sunday. Okeke’s versatility will certainly be missed. Auburn has also made it to this point behind a balanced group of perimeter shooters as they’re still a dangerous team without Okeke.
Although Okeke left with injury, he was at least able to take part in a positive moment after the game as he advanced the Tigers on the bracket after the win.