Behind yet another 3-point barrage, No. 5 seed Auburn overcame a slow start to roar past top-seeded North Carolina 97-80 in the Midwest Region semifinals in Kamsas City, Mo., Friday night. But the victory came only after sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, who already had scored a game-high 20 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, sustained a gruesome injury to his left knee in the closing minutes of the game.
“It’s a bittersweet accomplishment because of Chuma getting hurt,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl conceded. “In a game full of guys that have a chance to play at the next level, I thought he was the best player.”
Yet he didn’t do it alone. And that should give the Tigers (29-9), who matched the 1998-99 team for most wins in school history, some confidence as they aim for their first Final Four.
Malik Dunbar finished with 13 points, Bryce Brown and Danjel Purifoy scored 12 apiece, and Jared Harper scored nine while dishing out 11 assists in Auburn’s latest takedown of college hoops royalty.
It was Kansas last week. It was North Carolina on Friday night. It could be Kentucky next, after the Wildcats survived Houston’s comeback bid for a 62-58 victory in the second semifinal.
That trio represents the three winningest programs in Division I history.
“Three games away. That’s the bottom line,” said Brown, the catalyst of a team that rained in 17 3-pointers against the Tar Heels. “I want to lead my guys to a national championship.”
The Tar Heels’ own title aspirations may have been brought down by the flu bug.
Leading scorer Cameron Johnson spiked a fever Thursday night, and he wound up going 4 of 11 from the floor and scoring 15 points. Top bench player Nassir Little didn’t practice all week with the same symptoms, and he wound up scoring four points in just 12 minutes.
“Nassir didn’t have the same lift and Cam wasn’t the same person on the court, but those are just excuses,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose team was the first No. 1 seed to go down.
Auburn-Carolina was the track meet everyone anticipated from the opening tip, the only difference that the Tar Heels preferred to go to the basket while the Tigers kept pulling up for 3s.
Early on, they didn’t make nearly enough.
Yet they managed to track down all the long boards, allowing Pearl’s team to hang tough on the glass against the team with the nation’s No. 1 rebounding differential. That in turn gave them second and third chances down floor, and allowed Auburn to take a 41-39 lead into the break.
Kentucky 62, Houston 58: In the other Midwest semifinal, Kentucky got its big man back and PJ Washington helped get the Wildcats to the Elite Eight for the seventh time in 10 years — with big boost from Tyler Herro. Herro hit a 3-pointer with 25.8 seconds left to give second-seeded Kentucky the lead after Houston had erased a double-digit lead, and the Wildcats escaped with the win. There was a notion this Kentucky team might max out after two rounds of the NCAA Tournament if its star forward Washington didn’t come back from a foot injury. Playing through pain, Washington scored 16 points and had crucial blocked shot late in the game. Herro’s huge basket gave the Wildcats (30-6) a 60-58 lead and came after Houston’s Corey Davis Jr. had his driving shot swatted away by Washington. Herro, who made two free throws with 13 seconds to wrap up his 19-point night, also played a superb game defensively. His assignment was to guard Davis, who averaged 23.5 points in the Cougars’ first two tournament games. Davis missed 5 of his first 6 shots and was not much of a factor until he helped fuel Houston’s comeback. He ended up with 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting.
Duke 75, Virginia Tech 73: There was nothing Zion Williamson could do but watch. Once again, Williamson and Duke were at the mercy of an opponent’s last-second shot at the rim. Once again, the Blue Devils and their phenomenal freshmen marched on in March Madness when the ball didn’t drop through. Williamson and No. 1 overall seed Duke moved into the Elite Eight by erasing a deficit and then holding on to edge No. 4-seeded Virginia Tech in the East Regional semifinal in Washington on Friday night. The Hokies had their chances in the closing seconds, the final one coming on an inbounds play with 1.1 seconds left. The ball went to Ahmed Hill as he jumped to the basket, but his attempt to tie it somehow fell short from close-as-can-be. Williams — fittingly — grabbed the basketball and smiled broadly.
Michigan State 80, LSU 63: Aaron Henry scored a career-best 20 and Gabe Brown had a career-high 15 as the second-seeded Spartans beat third-seeded LSU to move on to the NCAA Tournament’s East Region final. Coach Tom Izzo’s upperclassman-heavy team is one victory against Duke away from its first Final Four appearance since 2015 — and the freshmen led the way. Michigan State took it to LSU on the glass, outrebounding the Tigers 34-20. At halftime, Michigan State had as many offensive rebounds as LSU had total rebounds, at times making it look like 5-on-4 when the ball came off the rim. It didn’t bounce off the rim much for the Spartans early as they took advantage of an LSU defense that left them uncontested 3-point shots. Michigan State had five 3s in the first 10 minutes alone, and LSU never adjusted defensively.
Briefly: Syracuse guard Tyus Battle, who averaged a team-best 17.2 points per game, announced that he will enter the NBA draft rather than return for his senior season. … St. John’s point guard Shamorie Ponds, who averaged 19.7 points and 5.1 assists this season, will skip his senior season to enter the NBA draft.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/collegesports/article/Auburn-ousts-top-seeded-North-Carolina-Duke-13728404.php.