It was nearly 11 p.m, when the Auburn men’s basketball team got back onto campus following its overtime victory over Kentucky that sent the Tigers to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
That didn’t stop Auburn fans from coming out to greet the victors.
“It definitely was like…it was an unbelievable moment getting off that bus and seeing thousands and thousands of peoples with cameras in our faces,” junior guard Samir Doughty said during Auburn’s media availability on Thursday. While the player expected some sort of greeting based on the reaction garnered after upsetting Tennessee in the SEC tournament, the greeting they got was more than even Doughty could imagine.
“It definitely was something we expected because when we won the SEC championship, we got back and it was an unexpected situation going on downtown that we didn’t expect. We kind of expected this that everybody would be out there, but it was just a lot more people than I expected.”
Fans “rolled” Toomer’s Corner, unleashing what only could be Costco-sized pallets of toilet paper on the oak trees at the corner of College Street and Magnolia Avenue:
Rolling of Toomer’s Corner — which is regarded as the spot where the Auburn campus meets downtown Auburn — is a long-standing tradition (so much so that our Auburn blog, College and Magnolia, took its name from it). Legend has it that Toomer’s Drugs, there on the corner, had the only telegraph in town, so big wins were celebrated with throwing telegraph ticker tape over the power lines. That has since transitioned to toilet paper (you know, because telegraphs), and the tradition has been cemented.
Doughty has never been a part of rolling the oak trees, though he appreciates the support. Teammate Anfernee McLemore echoed Doughty’s enthusiasm regarding the welcome the team got upon their return.
“It was definitely amazing…we enjoy it, we love it, we appreciate all of it and it was great just to be able to see all the people down there. It was 11 o’clock at night, so to see all the people down there.”
It had been an emotional weekend for Auburn, both on the court and off. The Tigers upset blue bloods North Carolina and Kentucky in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8, respectively, but also lost superstar forward Chuma Okeke to an ACL tear in the game against the Tar Heels.
Auburn rebounded from his loss and used the strong guard play of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown to create problems for the Wildcats, but head coach Bruce Pearl attributes the quick turnaround between games and bench depth for his team’s ability to push through.
“I think the benefit was the fact that we played 36 hours later, and we truly didn’t have enough time to think about what we lost,” Pearl said in Thursday’s press conference. “Does the idea of a little bit more Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore, Horace Spencer, and Danjel Purifoy, does that sound good? I think the answer is any of those guys does sound good.”
Okeke underwent a successful surgery on Tuesday (April 2) to repair the damaged ligament, meaning he had to be left behind as his teammates travelled to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“This is still for him,” guard Jared Harper said Thursday. “It’s knowing that even though he’s not here, he’s still here with us in this locker room.”
Every portion of this journey is new and emotional for the Tigers, and the players are trying to appreciate the experience while also preparing for the arduous game ahead against the No. 1-seed Virginia Cavaliers. Bryce Brown knows the slow-tempo Wahoos will pose a challenge, especially against a team like Auburn that likes to run-and-gun.
“Getting used to playing a team like that,” Brown said of the biggest key to dealing with Virginia. “We haven’t played a team like that all year, where they slow the ball down. They have times where they have a bucket in transition and they simply just swerve the ball back out and run their sets. It’ll be challenging to guard, but we’ll make sure we’re prepared for that.”
Auburn and Virginia meet Saturday night to vie for a spot in the national championship game. Until then, the Tigers are just trying to enjoy every moment.