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NCAA tournament Elite Eight: Tournament has been mostly chalk

Tre Jones, Zion Williamson
Duke guard Tre Jones (3) and forward Zion Williamson (1) celebrate as they leave the court after the team’s NCAA tournament East Region semifinal against Virginia Tech in Washington on Friday. Duke won 75-73.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

It took a while — nine days to be exact — but March Madness finally did something to deserve its nickname.

After more than a week of predictable results, all the top seeds cruising or at least scratching their way into the Sweet 16, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament produced a surprise before the weekend.

The Elite Eight will proceed with No. 5 Auburn still in the hunt after raining three-pointers to defeat North Carolina, which had been ranked No. 1 in the Midwest Region.

“Look, Carolina scored 80 points,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said of the need for some prolific offense. “We had to put up 97 to win.”

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Not that the Tigers’ victory on Friday night was a total shock — they ran Kansas out of the arena last week — but it represents the closest thing to a Cinderella story this season’s tournament can manage.

A few of the top seeds have come close to losing — Duke barely got by feisty Virginia Tech in a late game on Friday — but have found a way to prevail. Others, such as Gonzaga, have all but sailed through.

Virginia advanced over No. 12 Oregon in characteristic fashion, with a hard-nosed, low-scoring style of play that shouldn’t remind anyone of lunacy.

“You hang your hat on defense,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said, adding that “ugly is in the eye of the beholder.”

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Bennett has a point — what this year’s tournament has lacked in upsets, it has made up for with entertainment.

That Duke game came down to a last-second play, with No. 5 Virginia Tech getting a put-back chance that missed as time ran out. Second-seeded Kentucky had a scare of its own, needing a three-pointer in the final 25 seconds to get past No. 3 Houston.

Regardless of the final score, the remaining teams bring impressive resumes. Just listen to Texas Tech coach Chris Beard talk about the Gonzaga squad his third-seeded Red Raiders will face at Honda Center on Saturday.

“Their passion, their togetherness, their courage, how aggressive they are,” he said. “At this point, I’m a fan.”

Beard’s team looked good shutting down No. 2 Michigan, holding the Wolverines to less than 33% shooting from the floor. Second-seeded Michigan State had a rough start against No. 3 Louisiana State but pulled away in the second half.

Before that game, the Spartans had posted signs all over their hotel, dining room and locker room, repeating the same basic message: Rebound.

“Once we cleaned up on the glass a little bit better and got out in transition,” guard Cassius Winston said, “[it] made some easy things happen.”

LSU forward Naz Reid agreed: “It was very frustrating.”

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Auburn managed its upset thanks to a spark off the bench from forward Danjel Purifoy, who made four of six three-pointers for a team that shot nearly 46% from long range.

Still, as Pearl noted, the Tigers’ victory was “bittersweet” because of a scary looking knee injury to forward Chuma Okeke that silenced the arena near the end of the game.

“We started to pray. We asked God to watch over our brother,” said the coach, who choked up during a postgame television interview. “And Carolina did it and our guys did it.”

If the injury proves as serious as it appeared, Auburn —making its first Elite Eight appearance in more than three decades — will face a much steeper challenge on Sunday against Kentucky. And the Wildcats look better with forward PJ Washington returning from a foot sprain.

The other matchups this weekend?

With one of the toughest defenses in the game, Texas Tech is hoping to slow down a high-energy, multipronged Gonzaga attack that leads the nation in scoring.

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Virginia will take a similar approach with its top-ranked defense against Purdue, which is playing as if it has nothing to lose.

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“A lot of people counted us out at the beginning of the year,” Boilermaker guard Ryan Cline said. “I just keep preaching that, and we’re just going out and playing free.”

Michigan State will face a Duke team that has struggled at times — especially during an early-round scare against Central Florida — but has a player in freshman Zion Williamson who has been almost unguardable at critical moments.

“Now this March Madness, every game is kind of going to be like this, going to be close, hard-fought games,” Duke forward RJ Barrett said. “And we somehow find a way to keep winning at the end … we’ve just got to keep it up.”

It might make for a better story if the tournament holds at least one more surprise — maybe fifth-seeded Auburn reaching the Final Four and winning a national championship.

But upsets have been few and far between, the favored teams hogging the spotlight. The trend seems to be moving their way.

david.wharton@latimes.com

Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter


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