It took 80 years, 10 tournament appearances, two Elite Eights, 30 wins this season, Bruce Pearl, and an overtime for Auburn to make its first Final Four appearance. A 77-71 loss surely wasn’t how Kentucky saw itself leaving the tournament, but UK can take consolation that it wasn’t the first powerhouse Auburn took down this season. It wasn’t even the first powerhouse the Tigers conquered in the past week.
With tournament wins against Kansas, North Carolina, and now Kentucky, Auburn is this year’s official giant killer. Patience built this team; the starting lineup Pearl employed against Kentucky featured three seniors and two juniors. (Chuma Okeke, a probable first-round pick and season-long starter who tore his ACL in the Sweet 16 against UNC, is a sophomore.) The contrast between Auburn’s experience and Kentucky’s (and North Carolina’s, which started one freshman and a sophomore) showed in the final minutes of the game as the Tigers took a lead at the beginning of overtime and then held it until the end.
Kentucky does have a certain kind of experience: Historically, the team has made more trips to the Final Four (17) than Auburn’s made to the NCAA tournament overall (10). But that didn’t matter one bit on Sunday afternoon; everyone in Auburn’s starting lineup had a March Moment to keep the Wildcats away. Senior guard Bryce Brown, who finished with 24 points and three steals, gave Auburn its first lead of the game three minutes into the second half by hitting two foul shots, grabbing an offensive board, and dashing back out to the perimeter to hit a 3. The team’s second-best 3-point shooter, junior Jared Harper, went 1-for-6 from behind the arc. But Harper still managed 26 points the same way he managed four rebounds, five assists, three steals, and two blocks: by being the most fearless man on the court, in the arena, and in the state of Missouri on Sunday. Harper went to the line 11 times and made all 11 shots, two of which counted for the final two points of the game to put UK away for good.
The rest of the starters made critical plays, too. Defensive plays from Anfernee McLemore and Malik Dunbar stymied Kentucky’s long, rangy offense; and Horace Spencer, bless his heart, was put in the starting lineup for only the second time this season in place of Okeke. (So you’ll forgive his five fouls and 0-for-3 shooting.)
The Tigers are, like most teams that advance further than expected, very lovable. One-and-dones at Kansas, UNC, and UK shouldn’t be punished for wanting to earn a living as soon as possible, but man, it feels good to watch a team that’s tried to prove itself in the tournament for years finally break through.
The next giant Auburn will face is Virginia, which utilizes a slow, grind-it-out system that looks nothing like Kansas, UNC, or Kentucky. Virginia also has experience: the Hoos start three juniors, a senior, and a sophomore, all of whom were around last year when the team had a 1-seed (albeit a 1-seed that lost to a 16-seed, which had never before happened in the men’s tourney, and only once in NCAA history, during the 1998 women’s tournament). The Cavaliers have also reached the tournament in seven of the last eight seasons. Virginia wants to prove it can still hang after the most embarrassing defeat in tournament history. But Auburn, now, doesn’t have a thing to prove.