North geographic region Is Ousted by Fifth-Seeded
Auburn; Bluegrass State Survives Against Houston
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sometimes, basketball can be a simple game: You run, you shoot. For nearly all 40 minutes of their Midwest Region semifinal on Friday, North Carolina and Auburn went at each other in a furious contest that was part Olympic relay race, part barroom Pop-A-Shot game.
When it was over, the capacity crowd at Sprint Center had sore necks and racing hearts, while the fifth-seeded Auburn Tigers had a 97-80 upset victory that moved them a step closer to their first national basketball title.
On Sunday, Auburn will play for a trip to its first Final Four, facing second-seeded Kentucky, a gritty 62-58 winner over Houston in the region’s other semifinal.
Both coaches had predicted a breakneck marathon between Auburn and North Carolina, teams that had blitzed through their seasons and this tournament as if the Grim Reaper were in hot pursuit.
North Carolina Coach Roy Williams, who brought a top-seeded team into the N.C.A.A. tournament for the eighth time in 16 seasons, proclaimed before the game that he had never had a team play “fast enough” for his liking.
No, not even his three national title teams, the most recent in 2017.
It hardly mattered that analytic services such as the Ken Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings, or KenPom, ranked North Carolina as the sixth-fastest team in the country with an adjusted tempo of 74.1 possessions per game and a raw tempo of 75.8.
O.K., that’s wonkish. This isn’t: North Carolina came here with a 29-1 record when scoring 74 points or more.
Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl had acknowledged — no, promised — that his fifth-seeded Tigers could run with the Tar Heels. So what if Auburn was appearing in the round of 16 for the first time since 2003 and was aiming to reach the round of eight for the first time since 1986?
Pearl’s Tigers like to shoot. A lot. From a long way out.
Auburn had made 38.2 percent of its 3-point attempts this season, accounting for 43.5 percent of the Tigers’ scoring. Their 421 made 3-point field goals led the nation going into Friday’s game, and their 1,113 attempts were the second most in the country.
But after Friday’s win, guard J’Von McCormick said his teammates’ defense should not be overlooked. “We knew transition defense was the key,” he said of Auburn’s eight steals.
When the Tigers headed to the locker room at halftime on Friday with a 41-39 lead, they were thinking of reloading rather than catching their breath. The teams had combined to take 70 shots; for Auburn, half came from beyond the 3-point arc and, truth be told, they were mostly off the mark: 5 for 19.
That changed drastically in the second half, but not before the Tigers had their hearts stopped. After they took a 64-54 lead, the left leg of their sophomore big man, Chuma Okeke, seemed to buckle.
The arena went silent. Okeke was given a towel to bite on for comfort. He hobbled into the locker room with 20 points and 11 rebounds, and then went to an emergency room for an X-ray on his knee.
Auburn, however, kept firing the ball up — quickly and from far away. Danjel Purifoy came off the bench and drained two consecutive 3-pointers to stretch the Tigers’ lead to 16. He had four 3-pointers altogether and finished with 14 points.