It is the first ever Final Four appearance for Auburn, a program that's busting down doors under charismatic coach Bruce Pearl, and for Pearl himself. Pearl, in his fifth season at the helm of the Tigers program, will be the third first-time coach in college basketball's final weekend this season along with Virginia coach Tony Bennett and Texas Tech coach Chris Beard.
The Tigers' upset vs. the Wildcats in the Midwest Regional final capped a three-game stretch of victories over the three winningest programs in college basketball history after Auburn defeated Kansas in the second round and North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
"It's an honor to even be on the floor with those programs, and then when you play -- your kids play hard and play unselfishly and play together, obviously they're the Cinderellas of this tournament," Pearl said. "And that's what makes March so special, which team is it going to be?"
The Tigers (30-9) will face the Cavaliers, the No. 1 seed out of the South Regional on Saturday in Minneapolis in a national semifinal game.
Auburn ran away in the overtime to outscore Kentucky 17-11, but that was not the case in the waning minutes of the second half. Neither team could muster much offense. The Tigers scored only one field goal over the final four-and-a-half minutes, which came on a game-tying layup from Jared Harper with 37 seconds remaining.
Harper's role in giving Auburn extra time to win the game was vital. The 5-foot-11 guard played like a giant down the stretch. He finished with 26 points and five assists, and scored or assisted in 14 of the Tigers' 17 overtime points. Fellow teammate Bryce Brown's chipped in 24, and logged two steals in the extra frame.
"I feel like our team played well the whole second half, the whole overtime," Harper said. "I can't do what I did without having the support of my teammates and coaches."
Kentucky's PJ Washington, who began the NCAA Tournament on the bench due to a foot injury, scored 28 in the loss. Like Harper, he put his team on his back. Washington was 10 of 18 from the floor, 2 of 4 from 3-point range and pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds. For as hobbled as he was a week ago, the load he carried was admirable.
"They played aggressive and tough, they bumped, and it was a grinding kind of game," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "Two of their guys had 50 points. Think about that. They deserved to win the game. We got outplayed, got outcoached, and still had a chance to win the game. I thought we were going to win the game the whole way until the one or two plays in overtime. Never entered my mind we weren't going to win the game."
The Tigers were playing without forward Chuma Okeke, who injured his knee vs. the Tar Heels and will miss the rest of the NCAA Tournament. Auburn received an emotional lift when Okekein the second half.
But Auburn's relentless and punishing attack inside and out was too much for even Washington to overcome. With each response, Auburn had a counterpunch waiting. And now the Tigers have in their hands a welcome punched ticket to their first-ever Final Four.
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