Who's Auburn, you ask? The blue-blood killer who suddenly looks capable of going all the way
As Jared Harper was being introduced in the postgame interview by CBS sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl, she gave Harper’s stat line, with emphasis on his 11 assists.
“I had 11?” Harper asked Erdahl.
It was understandable that Harper wasn’t keeping track of his own stats. Auburn had bigger fish to fry. Rather, Auburn had another blue blood program to fry. And fry them, they did.
During the Tigers’ 97-point brigade against UNC in the Sweet 16 on Friday, Harper kept his head down and found open teammates to knock down buckets. Auburn has been doing the same thing for the last 3 weeks. That is, keeping its head down and knocking down college basketball’s elite. Now, Auburn is officially elite for the second time in program history.
For those who didn’t watch Auburn roll through the SEC Tournament or stay up last Sunday night to to see the Tigers run Kansas out of Salt Lake City for good, Friday night might’ve been a bit of an introduction to America. And surely many will take note of the Tigers’ current win streak.
“They won 11 in a row?”
A pair of blue-blood beatdowns shouldn’t have the world questioning Auburn, even if Chuma Okeke’s knee injury sidelines him for the rest of the tournament. These Tigers are roaring as loud as anyone left in the tournament. And if we’re picking today, Auburn might be the favorite to get to the national championship.
Welcome to 2019, where that’s not such a crazy sentence.
Let’s squash the notion that Auburn has the identity of some mid-major who’s dependent on catching fire from 3-point range or going home. You don’t steamroll a team as talented and as experienced as UNC by simply chucking a bunch of long-range shots and hoping for the best.
Auburn beat UNC at its own game, fair and square. Bruce Pearl’s team did all the little things not just to win that game, but to dominate it. They got back in transition and blocked what are usually easy UNC layups. They got after the offensive glass and made the most of second-chance opportunities.
Oh, and they did that thing that they didn’t really like to do for most of the year. It’s called, “defend like your season depends on it.”
Auburn had UNC point guard Coby White so flustered that Roy Williams took him out of the game with 4 minutes left (he was 4-of-15 from the field and 0-of-7 from 3-point range).
Ask Bryce Brown or any Auburn player what’s been the common denominator of this run and they’ll tell you it’s finally figuring out how to get the defense to fuel the offense. Like when a Horace Spencer block leads to an easy run-out and layup, or when J’Von “Money” McCormick picks a ball-handler’s pocket and it turns into a transition 3. Not surprisingly, no team in America is better at scoring off turnovers than Auburn.
This isn’t the same group that looked like a borderline tournament team when it lost at home to Ole Miss 6 weeks ago. You don’t win 11 games in a row by accident. You do it by figuring things out.
Okeke figured out that he’s really, really good at this basketball thing. The confidence he played with before exiting was downright inspiring. He did it all. He made 3-pointers, he finished at the rim, he got key rebounds to keep UNC from going on spurts. In a game that featured a handful of future lottery picks, Okeke was the best player on the floor and it wasn’t even close.
Had Auburn collapsed in the final 8 minutes without Okeke, nobody would’ve been stunned. There was a built-in excuse.
Instead, Auburn just kept its foot on the gas.
It remains to be seen if Okeke’s injury will serve as some sort of rallying cry. You know, not that Auburn needs it. This team has as much confidence as Gus Malzahn when he throws on the sweater vest.
(We’re not at the point where we can write an entire story about Auburn without talking about football yet, are we? Maybe we are after Friday’s showing?)
The best sign of Auburn’s night was that at halftime, it led the top-seeded Heels despite the fact that Harper was out for 7 minutes and Brown couldn’t buy a bucket early. And then to open the second half, both of the veteran stars knocked down triples. If you were looking for a good omen for the Tigers that they’d be able to pull off the upset, that was it.
If you’re looking for a good omen for Auburn to continue this white hot run through March, just look at … I don’t know. March?
Or just look at Danjel Purifoy banking in 3-pointers and know that the basketball gods are smiling down on Auburn. For once.
Erdahl asked Pearl about that and what exactly he said before that second half blitzkrieg. His answer was consistent to the point he made the last 3 weeks.
“Just to be yourself,” Pearl said. “The SEC prepared us for this.”
Fitting it was that with 40 seconds left, chants of “S-E-C! S-E-C!” filled the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Both teams cleared their benches with the game well in hand. For the second straight game, a perennial national title contender was left wondering what hit them.
Auburn is delivering haymakers to heavyweights. History suggests Auburn is a welterweight at best. The Tigers might be shedding that in a hurry.
Yeah, they’ve got 11. And counting.