The Auburn Tigers have become the most unlikely team to break into the Elite Eight of March Madness. Auburn knocked out top-seeded North Carolina with convincing 97-80 victory in the Sweet 16 to keep their NCAA tournament run alive. It’s the first time Auburn has advanced to the regional final since 1986.
North Carolina is the first No. 1 seed to exit the tournament.
Auburn wasn’t scared of a Tar Heels team that played at the fastest pace of any team left standing in the tournament. Instead of trying to slow the tempo, the Tigers ran with UNC all night. Auburn took the lead just before halftime on a buzzer-beating layup J’Von McCormick, and never looked back. Bruce Pearl’s team kept its foot on the gas and turned the game into a blowout midway through the second half.
Auburn’s win was marred by a serious knee injury to Chuma Okeke, the sophomore forward who was in the middle of a breakout performance. Okeke was already considered the Tigers best NBA prospect, and reinforced it by putting up 20 points and 11 rebounds before the injury.
Here’s how the Tigers earned the victory.
Auburn made it rain from three-point range
The Tigers averaged 11 three-pointers per game on the season. In this game. Auburn drained 17-of-37 triples, good for a ridiculous 45.9 percent clip.
Danjel Purifoy hit 4-of-6 three-pointers off the bench. Okeke and Malik Dunbar (13 points) each hit three three-pointers. Auburn was particularly hot in the second half, hitting 67 percent of its threes in the second half.
Auburn was a three-point heavy team all season. The Tigers took 49.7 percent of their shots from three-point range on the season, good for No. 8 in the country. They made 38.2 percent of those attempts. This was the Tigers playing at the peak of their abilities.
Auburn pushed the pace against UNC
Auburn didn’t play super fast for most of the season. The Tigers were No. 158 out of 351 DI teams in pace, per KenPom. But on Friday night, with the season on the line, Pearl’s team came out ready to beat UNC at its own game. The Tigers pushed the ball in transition all night, looking for offensive opportunities early in the shot clock and even pushing the ball off made baskets for the Tar Heels.
Auburn fought on the glass
North Carolina is a great rebounding team, especially on the offensive glass. While the Tar Heels grabbed 14 offensive boards on this night, Auburn held its own with 10 offensive rebounds of its own.
UNC was No. 1 in the country in rebound margin. Auburn wasn’t in the top-200. But the Tigers’ activity on the glass, led by Okeke’s valiant performance before the injury, gave them a chance not only to compete with North Carolina, but to turn this game into a blowout.
Auburn is rolling right now
The Tigers are playing their best basketball of the season when it matters most. After an 11-7 record in SEC play that saw them finish fourth in the conference, Auburn won the SEC tournament and now take an 11-game winning streak into the Elite Eight.
Three weeks ago, the best team Auburn had beaten was … Florida? Washington? All the Tigers have done since is win the SEC tournament, reach the Elite Eight and topple Tennessee (twice), Kansas and UNC.
— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) March 30, 2019
Auburn has never been to the Final Four. This team looks talented enough to do it.