KANSAS CITY — It was just after halftime that Auburn’s fallen big man with a newly torn ACL suddenly appeared behind the team bench. His teammates looked over and noticed Chuma Okeke. Oh, yes, they noticed him, all right.
“First time I’d seen him since the injury,” Auburn guard Bryce Brown would say later of the teammate who grievously blew out his knee Friday. “It broke my heart to see him. But I was also happy to see him. He had a smile on his face. I went over and said, 'We’ve got you, we’re going to do it for you.'
“Our whole goal today was to do it for Chuma. That was our only focus. I feel like if we did it, it’d make him proud.”
An hour later, they had done it, 77-71 in overtime over Kentucky to win the Midwest Regional, and the 2019 NCAA tournament had a genuine, bonafide underdog story. A fearless, surging, full-speed ahead underdog on a heartfelt mission, just in time for the Final Four. Here come the Auburn Tigers, blueblood-hopping their way to a place they have never been.
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“Obviously.” Coach Bruce Pearl said, “they’re the Cinderellas of this tournament.”
Down went Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final, just like North Carolina Friday — when Okeke was hurt — and Kansas before that. “It’s an honor to even be on the floor with those programs,” Pearl said. That’s a gilded trio with 16 national championships and 52 Final Four appearances — all run off the road by a fifth-seeded team that has never been to one. Until now. Virginia is next.
“I knew this group wanted to make history,” Pearl said.
The only other team to beat those three glittering marquee names in the same tournament was Arizona in 1997, and the Wildcats ended up national champions.
On Saturday, Auburn’s five starters had sat at a table during a press conference and been asked how many of them had been recruited by any of the three titans. The answer was unanimous.
“I don’t think we really took that too personal,” guard Jared Harper said at the time. “We felt like we’re all good players. We all been good players and have a great coach who believes in us here at Auburn. It was a perfect situation for all of us.”
Beat Kansas ✔️— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) March 31, 2019
Beat North Carolina ✔️
Beat Kentucky ✔️@AuburnMBB just beat the 3 winningest programs in college basketball history to advance to its first ever Final Four. AMAZING. pic.twitter.com/xs5TCjN8Hs
Especially now. Especially him. It was the 5-11 Harper — a blitzing, slashing blot of lighting no Kentucky defender could stop – who took over the game with 26 points. Put that with Brown’s 24, and the Auburn backcourt was a massive headache for the Wildcats. They scored 35 of the Tigers’ 47 points after halftime.
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“I’m a senior and I didn’t want to go home,” Brown said. “Plain and simple, I didn’t want to go home. I don’t want to be finished.”
And about his running mate Harper? “The smallest guy played like the biggest guy. Night in and night out, he’s been like that all season for us. Makes big shots, takes big shots.
“He’s going to lead us to a national championship.”
Auburn? National championship? Five weeks ago, the Tigers went to Kentucky and were blasted by 27 points. “We tried to put that game behind us as fast as possible, learn as much as we could from it and move forward,” Harper said. They haven’t lost since, winning 12 in a row, each one seemingly building toward the next. But Sunday was special, in more ways than the score.
Okeke’s injury Friday, which rained so heavily on the joy of the North Carolina victory, could have been devastating, and not only for what it meant on the court. Also emotionally.
Brown was his roommate here in Kansas City and agonized in an empty room the past two nights, with Okeke in the hospital. “It was a little lonely in there by myself,” he said.
By Sunday, Okeke’s fate had become an Auburn cause. His original intent was to stay in the hotel and watch the game. “I talked to him and he said he didn’t think he’d come, he was in a lot of pain,” Brown said.
But something changed. Maybe about the time Kentucky took an early 11-point lead. “He had to be watching the first half at the hotel and said, 'I can’t stay here, I’ve got to go,'” Pearl said.
And suddenly there he was in the Sprint Center, just in time to see Auburn wipe out a 35-30 Kentucky halftime lead and never give in. Some of it skill, some execution, a lot of it sheer emotion.
“Basketball is an emotional game,” Harper said. “When you have the team that we do, we’ve been counted out on so many times, we know it’s all of us against everybody.”
THE BRACKET: Print the official 2019 March Madness bracket
The tournament has seen something like this recently. In 2013, Louisville’s Kevin Ware unforgettably shattered his leg in the regional title game, and the Cardinals made winning the national championship for him as their driving force. They didn’t stop until they had the trophy.
Now here’s something of a sequel, only for a program utterly unaccustomed to these heights.
“It’s something you dream of,” Brown said. “When I first came to Auburn it’s not something I envisioned.”
Which is why he started celebrating before the final horn, even though cautioned from the bench. “They always say act like you’ve been there before, but I haven’t,” he said.
None of them have. They were so happy during the trophy presentation, and they tossed confetti on the smiling young man in a wheelchair just below them. Chuma Okeke. The Auburn crowd chanted Chuma! Chuma! and grew even louder when it was announced he had been included on the all-regional team. He did, after all, have 20 points and 11 rebounds against North Carolina before the injury.
Pearl told the crowd this game was indeed for Okeke. “The next two,” he said, “are for the Auburn Tigers.”