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The Auburn Tigers Just NBA’d Their Way to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight

The SEC champions are no stranger to made 3s and a modern offense. But against no. 1-seed North Carolina, they put together one of their most unbelievable offensive performances of the year.

Auburn v North Carolina Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If a college basketball team was ever going to replicate the kinds of scoring avalanches that the Golden State Warriors engineer, then it would look like what Auburn did on Friday night. The Tigers’ hoop turned into the size of an ocean in their Sweet 16 matchup against North Carolina, and that sharpshooting led the lowest-seeded team left in the tournament to a 97-80 upset win over the Tar Heels.

Auburn looked every bit like a modern NBA team in the game, taking 37 3s (their sixth-most attempts this season) and making 17 of them (tied for their second-most makes). Twelve of those makes came in the second half, when the Tigers outscored UNC 56 to 41. Less than 24 hours earlier, Virginia won its Sweet 16 game over Oregon by scoring a total of 53 points.

For much of Friday’s game, Auburn’s offensive deluge felt rather unbelievable. College basketball doesn’t typically look like something out of a video game, yet this kind of performance is baked into this team’s identity—the Tigers are eighth in the country in both attempted and made 3s per game. On Friday, they shot 54.5 percent from the field, and the bench outscored UNC’s 40-21. The 5-seed Tigers turned into an unstoppable force, one that not even the Midwest region’s no. 1-seed could slow.

This game was expected to be an offensive onslaught, as it pitted the sixth-best and eighth-best offenses in the country (per KenPom’s adjusted efficiency) against each other. And while it delivered the kind of high-scoring contest the tournament often lacks, North Carolina appeared far from a juggernaut on that end of the floor. Scoring 80 points in college basketball is not struggling, but doing that while the opposing team is incandescent from any part of the court—especially the area that’s worth an extra point—is like lighting a match in the middle of a dense forest and expecting it to stand out from beyond the trees. The fact that the Tar Heels shot 25 percent from 3 and 43 percent from the field—all while turning the ball over 14 times—didn’t help.

The Tigers went on a run during the first 11 minutes of the second half during which they made nine 3s, and each shot felt more absurd than the last—yet they kept going in. Only five teams in the country get more of their points from beyond the arc, but even this was absurd—all but one of the nine Auburn players that took a 3 made one, and all they could do as bucket after bucket swished in was laugh and shrug. North Carolina tried to respond with post-ups and by giving the ball to Coby White and hoping that he could create points out of thin air. But as the old adage goes, three is better than two, and just as math was in the Tigers’ favor, so was the final result.

UNC wasn’t without its setbacks. The Tar Heels had two players—Nasir Little and Cam Johnson—who were reportedly sick leading up to the game, and Johnson specifically was dealing with a fever. But they still entered Friday’s game boasting the most efficient defense left in the tournament. Auburn broke them on both ends of the floor. On defense, the Tigers had eight steals and six blocks. At one point in the second half, Little was swatted three times in the span of just a few minutes. His futility in trying to attack the rim felt emblematic of the untimely malaise that had fallen on the Tar Heels. They just didn’t have enough firepower, or luck, to keep up.

Auburn lost Chuma Okeke to a leg injury late in the game, and it’s unclear if he’ll be able to play at all over the rest of Auburn’s run. But the Tigers, now the lowest remaining seed in a tournament that has largely been filled with chalk, are marching on. The SEC champions are not a Cinderella story by any means, but they are a team that plays a modern brand of basketball and uses athleticism to its advantage—it’s an aesthetic dream. In college basketball these days, that’s like finding a diamond in the rough—or in this case, banking in a 28-foot 3-point shot.