Auburn insisted all along that 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.
Coby White and Cameron Johnson 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. Roy Williams finally relented and called timeout, and the genteel North Carolina coach with the aw-shucks disposition spent most of it savagely ripping into his bench.
The Tar Heels responded, at least for a while. But even when Maye and Johnson managed to trim their deficit to 60-54 with 13 minutes left, and a building solidly packed with Carolina blue began to stir, a brazen bunch of Tigers answered by rejected a pair of dunks and knocking down a 3.
Or two or three of them.
In fact, they knocked down five straight 3s at one point. Purifoy had two, prompting Williams to ask, “Who has No. 3!?” The answer was nobody: Purifoy knocked down another for good measure.
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.
Auburn gave him something good to watch on television.
Brown knocked down one more 3 to give the Tigers an 88-72 lead with 2:12 left, then took a steal for an emphatic breakaway dunk that the left the backboard shaking, and a single section sporting orange opposite the Auburn joined the rocking for a team headed to its first Elite Eight since 1986.
No. 2 Kentucky 62, No. 3 Houston 58: Tyler Herro hit a 3-pointer with 25.8 seconds left to give Kentucky the lead after Houston had erased a double-digit lead, and the Wildcats escaped their NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal with a 62-58 win over Houston Friday night.
Herro’s huge basket gave the Wildcats a 60-58 lead and came after Houston’s Corey Davis Jr. had his driving shot swatted away by PJ Washington, who was making his return after missing the first two tournament games with a left foot injury.
Davis missed what would have been a tying layup before Herro hit two more free throws to secure the win and send the second-seeded Wildcats to the Elite Eight for the seventh time in 10 years, Kentucky will face Southeastern Conference rival Auburn for a trip to the Final Four.
Herro led the Wildcats (30-6) with 19 points and Washington added 16.
Houston (33-4), in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1984, used a 17-6 surge to finish a comeback from 13 points down early in the second half. Armoni Brooks, who finished with 20 points, made three of his six 3-pointers during the run, the last a fade-away from the corner to tie it at 49. Davis then muscled a shot over Reid Travis in the lane with 3:39 left for the Cougars’ first lead since 13 minutes left in the first half.
After Washington made two free throws to tie it, Brooks struck again, this time from the right side, to make it 54-51.
The Cougars couldn’t quite finish the job. Davis’ floater made it 58-55 before Washington scored over Fabian White Jr. to make it a one-point game. He missed the tying free throw, and then raced to the other end to block Davis’ shot and turn the momentum back to Kentucky.
The Wildcats had been playing since March 16 without Washington, who spained his left foot in the SEC Tournament against Tennessee. His status was a mystery right up until the first media timeout, when he entered to a standing ovation from fans behind the Kentucky bench.
He showed no effects from the injury, scoring in the lane on his first shot and converting Keldon Johnson’s entry pass into a big dunk. Next, he passed out of a double team to Immanuel Quickley, who swished a 3-pointer from the corner, and then he hit a mid-range jumper for a 21-14 lead at the midway point in the first half.
Wildcats coach John Calipari had said Thursday that he would be “stunned” if Washington played more than 15-18 minutes, if he played at all. He played 26.