KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The euphoria of reaching the Elite Eight for the first time in 33 years had already worn off and Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was left to arrange his bravest smile on his face.
His trigger-happy Tigers were moving on in the NCAA Tournament.
They were doing it without their most versatile player.
Behind yet another 3-point barrage, No. 5 seed Auburn overcame a slow start to roar past top-seeded North Carolina 97-80 in the Midwest Region semifinals Friday night. But the victory came only after sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, who already had scored a game-high 20 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, sustained a gruesome injury to his left knee in the closing minutes of the game.
“It’s a bittersweet accomplishment because of Chuma getting hurt,” Pearl conceded. “In a game full of guys that have a chance to play at the next level, I thought he was the best player.”
Yet he didn’t do it alone. And that should give the Tigers (29-9), who matched the 1998-99 team for most wins in school history, some confidence as they aim for their first Final Four.
Malik Dunbar finished with 13 points, Bryce Brown and Danjel Purifoy scored 12 apiece, and Jared Harper scored nine while dishing out 11 assists in Auburn’s latest takedown of college hoops royalty.
It was Kansas last week. It was North Carolina on Friday night. It might be Kentucky next – the second-seeded Wildcats played No. 3 Houston in the second game in Kansas City.
“Three games away. That’s the bottom line,” said Brown, the catalyst of a team that rained in 17 3-pointers against the Tar Heels. “I want to lead my guys to a championship.”
Kentucky 62, Houston 58Tyler Herro and No. 2 seed Kentucky are advancing to the Elite Eight.
Herro poured in 19 points, including the go-ahead 3 with 25.8 seconds left and two clinching free throws to help the Wildcats beat third-seeded Houston 62-58 in the Midwest Region.
The Wildcats will take on Auburn on Sunday. The Tigers beat region top seed North Carolina earlier in the night.
P.J. Washington returned from an injury to score 16 points for the Wildcats, while Armoni Brooks had 20 points.
The Houston-Kentucky game capped a tense night in the Sweet 16, which included the first No. 1 seed going down with North Carolina’s loss to Auburn and overall tournament top seed Duke edging Virginia Tech after the Hokies missed three shots to tie or win on the final possession.
Michigan State also advanced by beating LSU.
The first tickets to the Final Four go out Saturday.