2019 NCAA Tournament: Auburn is playing above its level as it heads to a historic Final Four appearance
The Tigers are playing better than they actually are as they get ready to go to Minneapolis
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Sonny Smith is 82 now. The only other Auburn coach to lead the Tigers to an Elite Eight appearance works on the Tigers radio broadcasts now -- a relic of a different age.
But nine decades on the planet have instilled a measure of insight. When asked how these disrespected and disabled Tigers took down Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final, the answer was brilliant for its simplicity.
"They play better than they are," Smith said.
That's probably the best way to sum up the Tigers after they beat the second-seeded Wildcats 77-71 in overtime on Sunday.
Auburn was outshot and outrebounded by Kentucky. The Wildcats dominated play in the paint while Auburn was without its best player, forward Chuma Okeke.
But a football school that lives in the shadow of Alabama football 365 days a year had an answer. It was summarized by junior point guard Jared Harper.
"I've been proving myself my entire life," Harper said. "I feel like a lot of people on our team having been proving themselves their entire life."
It's that kind of outlook on hardcourt life that got the Tigers this far -- the first Final Four in program history.
Equal parts motivation, inspiration and the basketball horse sense of a 59-year-old, formerly-disgraced coach was all it took.
Motivation because the Tigers lost twice to Kentucky, with the last meeting on Feb. 23 at Rupp Arena resulting in a 27-point victory for the Wildcats. Inspiration because Okeke didn't get on the team bus Sunday because he was in too much pain. Okeke tore his left ACL Friday against North Carolina, meaning a complete re-shuffling of the lineup by Bruce Pearl was in order.
And Pearl was a master Sunday. Without Okeke, his most skilled inside player, Pearl used a rotation of big men that featured Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore, Horace Spencer and Danjel Purifoy. They combined to go 8 of 27 from the field.
They also combined to use up 15 of their 20 fouls. Spencer fouled out but their mere presence was enough. No longer is Auburn's basketball history dominated by one Charles Barkley. That and that one and only Smith-led Elite Eight in 1986.
"I thought our chances were really bad," Smith said.
"That's two different negative thoughts [losing twice to Kentucky] that enters your mind. In the back of your mind, when Chuma went down, we said, 'We can't recover this.' But we didn't know how good these guys are from the standpoint of playing together."
Auburn's effort -- as it usually is -- was decided by the guards. Harper became the regional's most outstanding player, dealing out 16 assists in the two games.
Bryce Brown scored 24 by messing with the Wildcats' heads. For most of the game, Kentucky overplayed Auburn from the arc. In fact, the number of 3-pointers launched (23) were the third-fewest this season. The makes (seven) were tied for the second-fewest.
Both Harper and Brown drove the ball when they got the opportunity, both surprising and surpassing the Wildcats. Brown was 4 of 5 inside the arc.
"I knew if we could get into the lane that they'd have to defend the outside," Smith said. "We knew they'd set up and double-team Bryce, and he was still able to score. But Jared Harper makes the difference."
The pair accounted for 23 of Auburn's 30 second-half points as slashers more than bombers.
"In the second half, all I did was get … the ball to Jared or Bryce," Pearl said.
"Best backcourt in the nation," Harper said.
Considering what they've accomplished, who is to argue? On Feb. 23, after that second Kentucky loss, the Tigers were 18-9. During the 12-game winning streak that got them to Minneapolis, the Tigers have been outrebounded nine times.
It doesn't seem to matter.
"It was motivation by far," Brown said. "We wanted Kentucky. It's no secret. We got 'em, and I feel like we handled our business."
Four years ago, Pearl was a down-on-his-luck coaching outcast, having served a three-year show-cause penalty for lying to the NCAA at Tennessee. On Sunday, he was the toast of The Plains.
With Pearl calling the shots, Auburn's run will go down as one of the best in tournament history. Auburn knocked off the three winningest programs in the sport's history: Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky.
That's a combined 52 Final Fours by those schools taken down by a program that just earned its first.
Prior to arriving in Kansas City, Kentucky had been giving up 50 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. Auburn had been averaging 88.5. The teams sort of met in the middle.
When Spencer missed a 3-pointer to win the game in regulation, leaving it tied 60-60, it was the first time all season Auburn hadn't lost while scoring 60 or less.
Okeke was a late arrival, with that throbbing knee keeping him back at the hotel until halftime.
"Emotionally, he said, 'I'm in too much pain to come,' Brown said.
But ... surprise! Okeke showed up in a wheelchair as Kentucky went to the break leading 35-30. After the game, he was rolled out to the podium, confetti raining down on him.
"This is for you," Pearl said amid the din. "The next two are for Auburn."
Was that a guarantee for Minneapolis?
"I've got in trouble with my mouth before, so why not do it on a national stage?" Pearl said. "These guys will back me up, though."
They usually have this season, playing better than they actually are.
"We'll have to play better to advance …," Pearl added. "You could see where we missed Chuma, especially on the defensive end, but we made enough plays to win a regional and go someplace Auburn's never been."
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