For the first time in program history, Auburn advances to the Final Four, beating Kentucky 77-71 in overtime Sunday to win the Midwest Region.
Two wins away from the national championship, Auburn (30-9) will play Virginia Saturday in Minneapolis.
Determined to do it for Chuma, Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combined for 50 points to lead the Tigers past a trio of blue bloods – Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky – boasting a combined 17 national championships.
“We wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” said Harper, who scored 12 of his team-high 26 points in overtime, including a drive down the lane to put Auburn up 70-63 with 1:10 left in OT. “We have confidence in our team. If we do the things we can do, I feel like we can beat any team in the country.”
Harper then hit six consecutive free throws to stave off Kentucky’s charge.
“I knew if I was going to be able to get to the line, I was going to make free throws,” said Harper, who was 11-for-11 from the free-throw line in the game. “I put a lot of work in, I put a lot of pressure on myself outside of games like this to be able to make those same plays, so when it comes time in the game, it’s no pressure at all for me.”
Anfernee McLemore blocked PJ Washington’s shot to secure the victory for Auburn.
“I just tried to do my part,” said McLemore, whose steal and layup gave Auburn a 68-62 lead with 1:48 left in OT. “I just knew it was time to get a stop, and if I was guarding him, I was going to make it hard for him to score. We showed that we can compete with anybody in the country. With beating North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky, I think we showed that.”
Brown scored 17 of his 24 points in the second half, making all six attempts, including a trio of 3-pointers.
The Tigers dedicated the game to sophomore Chuma Okeke, who injured his knee in Auburn’s 97-80 regional semifinal win over North Carolina.
“It’s amazing,” Brown said. “Above all, I’m just happy we got it for Chuma. This game was specifically for him. We went out there and battled for him.”
Auburn’s 10-0 run early in the second half turned a 37-30 deficit into a 40-37 lead. Brown hit a pair of 3-pointers in 47 seconds to give the Tigers their first lead.
After McLemore blocked a shot, Harper alley oop to J’Von McCormick made it 42-39.
Kentucky reclaimed the lead, but Brown’s third 3-pointer of the half put Auburn up 47-46 with 12:21 remaining.
Brown remained scorching hot, driving past Kentucky’s Tyler Herro and hitting jump shots for a 51-48 Auburn lead.
After Danjel Purifoy’s corner 3-pointer made it 54-50, Austin Wiley scored to give Auburn its biggest lead in regulation, 56-50 with 7:10 to play.
Kentucky cut the lead to two, but Brown continued to dazzle, driving past Reid Travis and hitting his sixth straight shot for a 58-54 Auburn lead at the 4:42 mark.
The Wildcats scored six unanswered points to lead 60-58, but Harper’s layup down the lane tied it at 60-60 with 37 seconds remaining.
After a Kentucky miss, Auburn had a chance to win in regulation, but Horace Spencer’s 3-pointer at the buzzer missed the mark.
After trailing by 11 midway through the first half, Auburn rallied to cut Kentucky’s lead to 35-30 at intermission.
Harper scored eight points in 2:13 late in the half, including a 4-point play. Harper’s coast-to-coast layup pulled Auburn with three at 31-28. McLemore’s follow-up dunk of a missed layup made it 32-30 with 35 seconds left before Ashton Hagans hit a 3-pointer with 12 seconds remaining.
Kentucky’s PJ Washington scored a game-high 28 points. Purifoy and Samir Doughty each grabbed a team-high seven rebounds for the Tigers.
“We’ll have to play better to advance,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl after leading the Tigers to program’s first 30-win season. “We’ve got confidence in Horace, Anfernee, Austin and Danjel. They all played a significant role. You could see where we missed Chuma, especially on the defensive end, but we made enough plays to win a regional and go someplace Auburn has never been.”