KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There isn’t a team in the country that Auburn doesn’t firmly believe it can beat.
It didn’t matter that Kansas had been to 31 Sweet 16s. Auburn beat it by 14 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It didn’t matter that North Carolina was a big, fast ACC regular-season champion and No. 1 seed that had been to 28 Elite Eights.
Bruce Pearl said before Friday’s Sweet 16 game that the Tar Heels “might be the best team left in the field.” They’re no longer left in the field the first top seed to be eliminated this year. The Tigers blew them by 17 — 97-80.
For the first time since 1986 and just the second time in program history, Auburn is going to the Elite Eight.
The game started as a back-and-forth affair between two teams with an affinity for playing up-tempo, with the Tar Heels leading by four points in the final two minutes of the first half. But the Tigers reeled off a 14-0 run that spanned halftime. The lower-seeded team never trailed by fewer than seven points the rest of the way and led by double-digits throughout the final 12 minutes.
The only negative aspect of the victory is the potentially serious injury to star power forward Chuma Okeke, who suffered what appeared to be a knee injury with 8:08 remaining in the second and did not return to the game. Both his teammates and members of the Tar Heels offered words of encouragement as he was helped off the court, putting little weight on his left leg.
A team spokesperson said he was getting his injury evaluated at the arena but offered no further updated at the time. Okeke shined before the injury, double-doubling with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
The last and only time Auburn went to the Elite Eight, it lost 84-76 to a Louisville team that went on to win the national championship. On Sunday, the Tigers will play for a spot in the program’s first-ever Final Four against the winner of Friday night’s game between No. 2-seed Kentucky and No. 3-seed Houston at a time to be announced.