Playing without their third-leading scorer and leading rebounder, Auburn defied the odds to knock off blue-blood Kentucky in overtime, 77-71, in Sunday’s Midwest Regional Final in Kansas City.
The Tigers were decided underdogs in this game after star forward Chuma Okeke suffered a torn ACL during Friday night’s Sweet 16 win over North Carolina. But his teammates filled the void admirably as Jared Harper scored 26 points for the Tigers, who reached their first Final Four in program history. Bryce Brown added 24 points on 8-for-12 shooting, including four timely three-pointers.
Auburn will play South Regional winner Virginia in next Saturday’s national semifinal in Minneapolis. With Sunday’s win, the Tigers became the first team to defeat Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in the same tournament since Arizona pulled off the trifecta on their way to the 1997 national title.
Auburn started slowly, missing eight of their first nine three-point attempts after hitting 17 shots from beyond the arc in Friday night’s win over top-seeded North Carolina. The Tigers were also beset by early foul trouble along their depleted front line, as Malik Dunbar, Horace Spencer and Austin Wiley each picked up two fouls before the 10-minute mark of the first half.
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On the other side, P.J. Washington could seemingly do no wrong, scoring 15 first-half points on five-of-eight shooting. He would finish with 28 points and 13 rebounds, but didn’t get enough help from his mates.
The Tigers rallied after trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half, outscoring Kentucky 10-5 over the final three minutes before halftime to cut their deficit to just 35-30 at the intermission.
Auburn picked where they left off in the second half, opening on a 10-2 run and taking their first lead of the game at 40-37 on a Brown three-pointer with 17:47 left in regulation. The Tigers players and fans got an additional boost when Okeke was wheeled to the end of the bench during a TV timeout.
Kentucky briefly retook the lead on a Washington dunk and foul shot, but Brown hit another trey to restore Auburn’s lead at 47-46.
Kentucky appeared to have retaken control of the game when Washington put back his own miss to make the score 60-58, Wildcats with 57 seconds remaining. But Harper drove the floor and laid in the tying basket. Auburn could have won the game in regulation, but Horace Spencer missed a difficult three-point shot on the final possession.
This is a developing story; check back for more updates.