Auburn has taken the road never traveled to reach its first Final Four.
In defeating Kentucky 77-71 in overtime to capture the Midwest Regional title on Sunday, the Tigers knocked off college basketball’s winningest program.
This after Auburn became the first program to defeat Kansas and North Carolina, teams that rank second and third on the all-time victory list, in successive games.
“This group wanted to make history,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “To do this against some of the best teams, against some of the best coaches in college basketball makes it more impressive.
“It’s an honor to even be on the floor with those programs.”
It’s been an amazing run for Auburn, which got away from its deadly three-point shooting on Sunday but relied heavily on its backcourt to claim the victory.
Point guard Jared Harper was especially effective in the extra period. He scored the first four points on drives to open a lead and helped put the game on ice with free throws down the stretch. He scored 12 of his 26 points in overtime.
Bryce Brown added 24 points for the Tigers and was huge in helping get back into the game from an early double-digit deficit.
The game swung in the final minutes of regulation. The Tigers led 56-50 with seven minutes left, but Kentucky’s defense got tough and the Wildcats’ star rose to the occasion. PJ Washington, who had missed the first two rounds of the tournament with a foot injury, followed his miss near the basket with a stickback to give his team a 60-58 lead with a minute remaining in regulation.
Harper’s drive with 38 seconds to play tied the game, and when Kentucky came up empty on its possession, the Tigers had 13 seconds to end it before overtime.
The look Auburn got wasn’t a good one: forward Horace Spencer, who didn’t score in the game, fired a three-pointer from the left wing. The ball bounded away as the horn sounded with the game tied 60-60.
Auburn trailed by as many as 11 in the first half. But the Tigers cut the margin to five before halftime. Jared Harper’s four-point play was a big moment late in the half.
The team that had scored in lightning-quick fashion in what became blowout victories over North Carolina in the regional semifinals and Kansas in the second round, was at it again. Auburn used a 10-0 run early in the second half to grab its first lead of the game.
Brown’s personal five-point possession fueled the run. He was fouled on a three-point attempt and made the first two free throws before missing the third. Auburn hustled down the rebound and Brown swished a corner three for a 40-37 lead.
Inspiration for Auburn arrived by wheelchair during a second half timeout. Chuma Okeke, who suffered a torn ACL late in the Tigers’ victory over North Carolina, was piloted to the Auburn bench, where he took a spot behind the team to chants of “Chu-ma! Chu-ma!”
Auburn became the second program to beat Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina in the same tournament, joining Arizona in 1997, but the first to do it in succession.