KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There might be teams better than Auburn.
There’s no team tougher, however.
Kansas. North Carolina. Kentucky. They are the titans of college basketball, winners of more games than any other programs. And Auburn, a school where basketball has mostly been something to pass the time between football and spring football, took them out one by one.
Kansas, humbled in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
North Carolina, routed in the Sweet 16.
And perhaps most satisfying, Kentucky, a team that had walloped Auburn a little over a month ago, sent home short of the Final Four for another season.
That in and of itself would be worthy of praise and admiration. But Auburn’s biggest win, on Sunday to reach its first Final Four, came less than 48 hours after Chuma Okeke tore his ACL, an injury that created as big a hole in Auburn’s heart and soul as it did in its lineup.
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Okeke’s teammates were devastated when he went down during Friday night’s game against Carolina. When coach Bruce Pearl confirmed Saturday that Okeke had a torn ACL, the Tigers sitting next to him looked as if they’d been punched in the gut.
But instead of folding, instead of letting the injury deplete them, it made them more resilient. When he was wheeled onto the floor early in the second half, shortly after Auburn had taken its first lead of the game, Auburn fans erupted and each of his teammates ran to greet him.
Okeke watched the rest of the game from behind the bench, and cheers of “CHU-MA! CHU-MA!” broke out as the Tigers climbed the podium to receive their trophy as Midwest Regional champions.
“That one right there was for Chuma Okeke,” Pearl shouted after Auburn downed Kentucky 77-71 in overtime.
“But the next two are for the Auburn Tigers!”
Auburn, a fifth seed, will play Virginia on Saturday in the Final Four in Minneapolis. The Cavaliers are a No. 1 seed for a second year in a row, and showed resolve of their own in rebounding from last year’s stunning upset by Maryland-Baltimore County in the first round, the first 16th seed to win.
But anyone who bets against Auburn now does so at his or her own peril. The Tigers have won 12 in a row, a streak that can be traced directly back to that debacle at Rupp Arena.
Auburn was in the midst of a solid but certainly not spectacular season when it went to Lexington on Feb. 23 — and got beaten about as badly as a team at this level can be beaten. It lost by 27 points as Kentucky shot better than 54%.
And that was with Kentucky not having Reid Travis.
After the game, Pearl told the Tigers that they had played a Final Four team. He wasn’t going to say there was no shame in losing to Kentucky, even like that, but he wanted his players to recognize the gap.
“We got hit in the mouth and we got beat up,” Pearl said Saturday. “But we didn’t let it define us.”
No, it’s what Auburn did after that will define this team.
It went to Georgia the next game and won. It beat Tennessee — twice. It outshot most teams, taking — and making — 3s like it was playing Pop-a-Shot. When that wasn’t enough, it outscrapped and outhustled its opponents.
It never, ever, ever let up. And now it’s on its way to the Final Four.
“I came back to the kids (after the Kentucky loss) and said, ‘Here’s all we’ve done. We missed an opportunity. Now let’s just not miss the next one,'” Pearl said.
Talent will only take you so far, especially in March, when the floor is loaded with it. It’s what you have in heart and grit that determines who keeps playing and who goes home.
There are better teams than Auburn. Even Pearl and his Tigers would probably agree with that.
But no one, regardless of resume of reputation, will play tougher or harder.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.