Auburn gives boot to No. 1 seed North Carolina
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Auburn insisted all along it wouldn’t change its style against up-tempo North Carolina.
Turns out the SEC Tournament champs can run a bit, too.
Auburn earned its second trip to the Elite Eight by coasting to a to a 97-80 victory over the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region on Friday night. The trigger-happy Tigers overcame an early deficit with a hot-shooting second to return to the region final for the first time in 33 years.
North Carolina (29-7) was the first top seed eliminated from this year’s NCAA Tournament. Auburn (29-9) tied its 1998-99 mark for most wins in a season.
The Tar Heels’ bevy of athletes could do nothing to slow down Auburn, which got 20 points and 11 boards from Chuma Okeke before he left with a gruesome knee injury late in the game. The big forward certainly didn’t do it alone as the Tigers had six in double-figures scoring, and they knocked down 17 of 37 3-pointers in a virtuoso shooting performance.
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 for the right to face arguably the hottest team in the NCAA Tournament.
Coby White and Cameron Johnson (OLSH) had 15 points apiece for North Carolina, which had won 10 of its last 11 with the lone loss coming to Duke in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament.
Auburn-Carolina was the track meet everyone anticipated from the opening tip, the only difference that the Tar Heels preferred to go to the basket while the Tigers kept pulling up for 3s.
Early on, they didn’t make nearly enough.
Yet they managed to track down all the long boards, allowing coach Bruce Pearls’ team to hang tough on the glass against the team with nation’s No. 1 rebounding differential. That in turn gave them second and third chances down floor, and allowed Auburn to take a 41-39 lead into the break.
The Tigers’ run eventually reached 14-0 spanning halftime, giving them the first double-digit lead of the game.
The Tigers’ momentum finally slowed when Okeke’s left knee buckled on the way to the basket. The sophomore forward crumpled to the floor along the baseline, rolling around in agony and disappointment, and it eventually took two trainers to help him limp to the locker room.