KANSAS CITY, Mo. — After burning the nets throughout the NCAA Tournament, the Auburn Tigers cut them down.
Auburn beat Kentucky 77-71 in overtime Sunday to win the Midwest Region and advance to the Final Four for the first time. The 3-pointers didn’t fall as often or in the flurries of earlier rounds, but it didn’t matter.
Junior guard Jared Harper scored 11 points in overtime, all coming on driving layups or free throws.
The Tigers join Texas Tech as Final Four first-timers. They’ll be underdogs against Virginia in the semifinals, but given how they earned their way to Minneapolis, they seem especially dangerous.
They’ve won 12 consecutive, including the last three against Kansas, North Carolina and then Kentucky – college basketball’s three winningest programs. They blew out the Jayhawks and Tar Heels and then survived the Wildcats, who had beaten Auburn twice during the regular season.
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Guards Bryce Brown and Harper fueled Auburn on both ends, even on a day when their favorite shot wasn’t available. Auburn was only 7-23 from 3-point range (and only tried one in overtime).
Brown put together a personal 8-0 run during a comeback early in the second half, two 3-pointers sandwiched around free throws, as the Tigers rallied from a five-point halftime deficit to take the lead. And Harper’s acrobatic drives, especially in overtime, led to layups, either by Harper or teammates.
The Tigers won without injured forward Chuma Okeke, who suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in the Sweet 16 win against North Carolina, watching from a wheelchair behind the team’s bench.
Bruce Pearl’s teams have always favored the 3-pointer, but never like this. Auburn entered the day with 438 3-pointers, the most in school history and third-most in NCAA Division I history, and moved up to No. 2 all-time behind Villanova (464) with plenty of shots left to fire. Almost half – 49.5 percent – of their field-goal attempts this season are from beyond the arc.
They were 3-11 in the first half, and trailed 35-30 at halftime. Kentucky made preventing the 3-pointer a priority, but the Tigers also missed open looks. And although they adjusted later in the half and began driving, their affinity for the 3 never waned.
“We’re gonna try and put it on you from the beginning,” junior forward Danjel Purifoy said. “If we miss, we’re gonna come back in the second half and we’re gonna make ‘em. That’s just how we’ve been playing for the longest.”
Brown made ‘em early in the second half, outscoring Kentucky 8-0 in 50 seconds. The senior guard hit a 3, then two of three free throws when he was fouled trying another 3. When Kentucky tried to save the missed free throw, he stole the pass and drilled another 3 – a five-point possession that gave Auburn its first lead, 40-37 with 17:45 left.
At that point, the Tigers had hit only five 3-pointers (in 14 attempts).
Moments later, Brown took one dribble out of a thicket of Kentucky defenders and hit another 3. And this is how it goes with Auburn. Purifoy, who hit three consecutive 3-pointers during a second-half run that buried North Carolina in the Sweet 16, had missed several Sunday when he fired from the corner. The shot was flat, and hit the front of the rim – and then popped high into the air and through the net for a 54-50 lead.
“There is no such thing as a ‘bad 3,’” junior guard Jared Harper said.
It’s a lot more than 3-pointers. Auburn’s gambling, full-court defensive pressure bothered Kentucky. Twice on Kentucky’s final possession of regulation, the Tigers blocked shots on the interior, preserving a 60-60 tie. Horace Spencer’s 3-pointer at the buzzer missed, sending the game to overtime.