Auburn outlasted Kentucky in overtime in Sunday’s Elite Eight showdown between the two SEC teams, reaching its first Final Four in program history. Coach Bruce Pearl’s team knocked out the No. 2 seed to claim the Midwest Regional after drubbing No. 1 North Carolina and No. 4 Kansas in the previous rounds.
Here’s a look at three reasons why the red-hot Tigers aren’t finished yet and can cut down the nets in the national title game in Minneapolis on April 8:
1. Jared Harper and Bryce Brown. The Tigers’ tempo-controlling backcourt duo combined for 50 points on Sunday, with both guards playing 39 minutes apiece. The hero of the Kentucky win ultimately was Harper, who scored 12 of his 26 points in overtime by willing his way to the basket for key layups, assists and then clutch free throws. Brown was the one who carried the Tigers in regulation, draining a barrage of long-range jumpers that helped Auburn overtake the game’s momentum right at the start of the second half. It’s like these two guards were running a relay and handed off the baton for the other’s turn to take over the game. That type of willpower and clutch genes are ingredients for more winning in April.
2. Playing for Chuma Okeke. Oftentimes a significant injury can sink a team’s winning formula. But in Auburn’s case, the loss of their big man, who spearheaded the Tigers’ win over North Carolina before tearing his ACL, has only ignited this team’s charge and given players more of a chip on their shoulder.
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As if the No. 5 seed underdog needed any more motivation, playing without Okeke has sparked them to come together through that adversity and channel it into their against-the-odds identity.
3. Game-changing defensive plays. Horace Spencer’s block of PJ Washington with 11 seconds left in regulation and Anfernee McLemore’s block of Keldon Johnson with 10 seconds left in overtime were the stops that ultimately denied Kentucky a win. While Harper and Brown inserted their willpower on the offensive end, it was the supporting cast’s defensive determination that proved to be just as valuable.