KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Danjel Purifoy caught the ball on the left wing Friday night, steps from the Auburn bench, he heard Bruce Pearl, speaking to him very softly — almost “a whisper,” Purifoy said.
“Stick it,” the Tigers’ coach said.
Next possession, when he found himself with the ball in the same spot, he got the same instruction: “Stick it.” He did.
And then the next possession, too: Same spot. “Stick it.” He did.
“The third one, it felt like the rim just got bigger and bigger,” Purifoy said.
After what we’ve seen from Auburn in the NCAA tournament — 13 3-pointers in a blowout win against Kansas, 17 in that blowout win against North Carolina — every Tiger probably knows the feeling. Auburn’s run through the bracket, and its chance to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history, hinges on the 3-pointer.
Or a flurry of them, rather.
“That’s who we are,” senior guard Bryce Brown said. “We’re gonna knock down shots. We’re gonna make shots.”
And they’re going to take them — a lot of them — at any time, in any situation. Auburn’s offense is predicated on the 3: 49.5 percent of its shots have come from beyond the arc. The Tigers have hit 438 (11.5 per game), which is the most in college basketball this season (and just 26 shy of the all-time mark for a season, set last season by Villanova), while averaging 38.1 percent. Seven times this season — including against No. 1 North Carolina — they’ve hit at least 15.
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Auburn has won 11 consecutive games, but that last loss was at Kentucky — by 27 points. It was their second loss to the Wildcats, and they made only 8 of 27 from 3-point range on that day in Lexington.
How do they win in their third try? The same way they’ve won so many other games, especially during the winning streak, when they’ve averaged nearly 33 3-point attempts and 13 makes (139 of 355).
“We can’t be stopped when we’re making threes,” Purifoy said. “We live by the three and we die by the three. The last couple of weeks, we’ve been living by the three real well.”
Here are five more keys to an Auburn victory:
1. Absorb the loss of Chuma Okeke
When Auburn’s junior forward went down with 8:08 left against North Carolina, it was immediately apparent the injury was serious. Saturday brought confirmation: Okeke suffered a torn ACL. The Tigers already had a big lead against North Carolina and didn’t skip a beat in the final minutes. But how will they fare without their best all-around player?
It was clearly an emotional blow, even Saturday, when several Auburn players sent tweets with the hashtag #PlayforChuma.
Out: Okeke has torn ACL; will undergo surgery, miss rest of tournament
Sportsmanship: North Carolina players embrace injured opponent
But his tangible contributions will be hard to match. He had 20 points and 11 rebounds against North Carolina, and his defense against Tar Heels forward Nassir Little — including an emphatic, momentum-turning block — was integral. Purifoy and senior forward Horace Spencer are expected to split Okeke’s minutes. Can they combine to create a reasonable facsimile?
“Everybody’s gonna have to pitch in and just help do what Chuma did,” Brown said, “because he did a lot for us.”
2. Contain PJ Washington
Yeah, this one is obvious — and it’s easier said than done. After missing the first two games of the NCAA tournament with a sprained left foot, Kentucky’s star forward returned Friday and was a difference-maker: 16 points and a huge block in the final minute to help the Wildcats to a 62-58 win against Houston.
The last time the Tigers met Kentucky, Washington had 24 points and six rebounds on 9-for-13 shooting.
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“Our biggest key,” Auburn forward Anfernee McLemore said, “is to make sure PJ Washington doesn’t have a monster game.”
3. Hit the boards
This goes along with the last key, but it’s more than Washington. Auburn is not a great rebounding team, but Kentucky outrebounded the Tigers by seven in the teams’ first meeting and by 19 (43-24) in that 80-53 win on Feb. 23.
“We can’t get punked on the boards,” Purifoy said. “We can’t let them just outphysical us, do what they want in the paint. We can’t let them push us around.”
Given Kentucky’s size advantage — it’s not just Washington, but also forwards Reid Travis and EJ Montgomery — this is a tall order.
4. Play free; keep thatchip on the shoulder
Auburn, the Midwest Region’s No. 5 seed, is the lowest seed remaining. It has reached the Elite Eight for only the second time in school history. As such, there’s very little pressure – but plenty of reason to feel slighted.
Auburn lost twice to Kentucky in the regular season – including a 27-point whipping Feb. 23 in Lexington, Ky. But all the Tigers have done since is win 11 in a row.
That included a 20-point win against Tennessee in the SEC tournament championship. And after an escape against No. 12 New Mexico State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, they’ve rolled over two of college basketball’s bluest of bluebloods.
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“You can kind of look at us like a Cinderella or an underdog,” Brown said. “I don’t know if there’s a single game that people haven’t doubted us in the (NCAA) tournament so far. Even the first game against New Mexico State. Kansas, people doubted us. UNC, people doubted us. We’re the underdogs in pretty much every situation.”
And McLemore wondered: “Why can’t we beat Kentucky, too? We already beat Kansas and North Carolina.”
5. Did we mention the 3-pointers?
The Tigers hit 13 against Kansas and 17 against North Carolina. How many do they need to hit to beat Kentucky?
“I don’t know if there’s a number,” junior guard Jared Harper said, “but we just want to continue to do the right things, make the right plays, let the game come to us. … We have to continue to spread the floor and make shots. When you have people at all five positions that can make the 3-point shot, it helps.”