By Nancy Armour |
There might be teams better than Auburn.
There is no team tougher, however.
Kansas. North Carolina. Kentucky. They are the titans of college basketball, winners of more games than any other programs. And Auburn, a school where, Charles Barkley aside, basketball has mostly been something to pass the time between football and spring football, took them out one by one.
Kansas, humbled the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
North Carolina, routed in the Sweet 16.
And perhaps most satisfying, Kentucky, a team that had walloped Auburn a little over a month ago, sent home short of the Final Four for another season.
Those wins in and of themselves would be worthy of praise and admiration. But Auburn’s biggest win, on Sunday to reach its first Final Four, came less than 48 hours after Chuma Okeke tore his ACL, an injury that created as big a hole in Auburn’s heart and soul as it did in its lineup.
Okeke’s teammates were devastated when he went down during Friday night’s game against Carolina. When coach Bruce Pearl confirmed Saturday that Okeke had a torn ACL, the Tigers sitting next to him looked as if they’d been punched in the gut.
But instead of folding, instead of letting the injury deplete them, it only strengthened their resolve.
When he was wheeled onto the floor early in the second half, shortly after Auburn had taken its first lead of the game, Auburn fans erupted. Instead of being distracted and losing focus, the Tigers ran to greet him before returning to the floor with looks of purpose on their faces.
Okeke watched the rest of the game from behind the bench, and cheers of “CHU-MA! CHU-MA!” broke out as the Tigers climbed the podium to receive their trophy as Midwest Regional champions.
“There’s no question we missed Chuma because you can’t replace him. He’s our most valuable player. He’s kind of our go-to guy other than Jared (Harper) or Bryce (Brown),” Pearl said after Auburn downed Kentucky 77-71 in overtime. “But they’ve got confidence in (their other teammates). They do.
“And so I think that confidence going in, our guys didn’t think we can’t win without him. We may miss him, but the other guys would step up.”
Auburn, a fifth seed, will play Virginia on Saturday in the Final Four in Minneapolis. The Cavaliers are a No. 1 seed for a second year in a row, and showed resolve of their own in rebounding from last year’s stunning upset by Maryland-Baltimore County in the first round, the first 16th seed to win.
But it is a fool who underestimates Auburn. The Tigers have won 12 in a row, a streak that can be traced directly to that debacle at Rupp Arena.
Auburn was in the midst of a solid but certainly not spectacular season when it went to Lexington on Feb. 23. After a two-point loss to the Wildcats in January, the Tigers thought they had chance — only to get beaten about as badly as a team at this level can be beaten.
Auburn lost by 27 points as Kentucky shot better than 54%. And that was with Kentucky not having Reid Travis.
After the game, Pearl told the Tigers that they had played a Final Four team. He wasn’t going to say there was no shame in losing to Kentucky, even like that, but he wanted his players to recognize the gap.
“I came back to the kids (after the Kentucky loss) and said, ‘Here’s all we’ve done. We missed an opportunity. Now let’s just not miss the next one,'” Pearl said.
Auburn went to Georgia for its next game and won. It beat Tennessee — twice, including for the SEC tournament championship.
It outshot most teams, taking — and making — 3s like it was playing Pop-a-Shot. And when that wasn’t enough, it outscrapped and outhustled its opponents.
After leading by as many as six in the second half, Auburn found itself trailing thanks to consecutive baskets by PJ Washington. Kentucky had largely taken the 3 away in the second half, and several of the Tigers were in foul trouble.
But Harper forced overtime with a layup with 38 seconds left, then finished off Kentucky with a pair of layups to start the extra period. Harper scored 12 of his team-high 26 in overtime.
Now Auburn, a team few outside its own locker room would have imagined in the Final Four even a few weeks ago, is headed for Minneapolis.
“No matter how low we got this season, no matter how much adversity went through, we always believed this is where we could get to,” Brown said. “I feel like that was big, you know, just the guys in the locker room, we always believed, and we also lived
for this moment, I feel like.”
Teams often don’t realize until it’s too late that talent will only take you so far, even in March. It’s the intangibles — the heart and grit and refusal to give up — that decide who keeps playing and who goes home.
Of the 300-plus teams that began the season, only four remain. Auburn is as tough as any of them.
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.