KANSAS CITY — It had been on their minds the whole time, but somewhat abstractly, one of those hardships that sports and adrenaline and well-trained, myopic focus have a way of alchemizing into something like motivation, or at least have a way of distracting from. Then Auburn entered its locker room after its 97–80 win over No. 1 seed North Carolina in Friday’s Sweet 16 and saw Chuma Okeke, their leading scorer in that game, at rest in front of his locker—the team’s first time seeing the sophomore forward since the 8:08 mark of the game, when Okeke was helped off the court after his left leg gave out as he drove to the hoop, sending him collapsing to the court.
“Everybody started tearing up,” said junior forward Danjel Purifoy, whose locker is next to Okeke’s. “It hurt. It was emotional. Once we saw the brace on his leg, it became more real.”
“I just told him I love him, we’re here for him, and he’s a big reason why we’re in this position,” said junior guard Samir Doughty.
“Nobody works harder,” Tigers coach Bruce Pearl said of Okeke. “Nobody gives us more courage.”
It was a subject that almost felt unfair to broach in the game’s immediate wake, a sobering bit of news trampling on whatever currents of excitement the other Tigers could muster when not reminded of the injury to their teammate, who was not present when the locker room was open to the media. They had just earned Auburn’s second Elite Eight in the program’s history—the other coming in 1986—and had the joy of that history tempered, and one of their teammates felled, by a brutal stroke of luck. Of Okeke’s injury, Pearl told reporters after the game, “We don’t know the status, but we think it could be serious.”
The game had been, until Okeke’s injury, an unbridled thrill for the SEC’s tournament champion. The matchup with the Tar Heels had lived up to its billing as a festival of pace and points (and, as Pearl predicted to ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, exceeded the Vegas over/under) that North Carolina entered as the bracket’s most breakneck-tempo team and that trigger-happy Auburn entered as, in the words of Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, “a team of green lights.” The game played as if the two sides were trying to muster an antidote to the defensive, grinding hex that was cast on the tournament a night prior. By the time this game’s first minute ended it was well into its fifth possession; soon the team’s point guards—Carolina freshman Coby White and Auburn junior Jared Harper—were trading coast-to-coast drives in a rollicking flow that animated a crowd to match.
The Tigers attempted threes at a D’Antonian rate—19 of their 38 first-half field goal attempts were from behind the arc—but connected on only five of them. They made up for it by Harper and J’Von McCormick, two maybe-six-foot point guards, driving undauntedly and successfully into the teeth of the Tar Heels’ back line, their lack of size compensated by their total disregard of it. At times on defense those two defended White and Kenny Williams so closely they practically seemed inside their jerseys, managing to speed even that tempo-pushing backcourt into uncontrolled discomfort. It was somehow Auburn that seemed more comfortable with the game’s relentless speed, which was not a surprise to them. “A lot of teams don’t like to run with Carolina,” junior forward Anfernee McLemore had said the previous day. “We think we can do that—and faster.”
At halftime Pearl implored his charges not to grow shy from outside, despite their middling 26.3% three-point shooting percentage in the first half. The Tigers complied and came out gunning, scoring eight straight points to inflate what had been a last-second two-point lead at the break into a 10-point margin after only 92 seconds of play. Five different Auburn players made threes in the second half’s first nine minutes as the team seized a level of control it would not relinquish. Purifoy, who until the 11:06 mark of the second half had not scored, came off the bench to connect on three treys in a row, which represented more than a sixth of his season total. By the time McLemore banked one in a few minutes later, the Tigers led by 19.
“You call that bank?” senior Malik Dunbar asked McLemore in the locker room after the game.
“No, I ain’t call that,” McLemore said, laughing.
“It was kind of a funny shot,” Purifoy said of McLemore’s dagger. “After that, it looked like they just gave up.”
Okeke too had his own decisive moment, some three minutes before his injury. In perhaps the best game of his young career, scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, among his most memorable plays was an emphatic, swinging swat of a dunk attempt by North Carolina freshman Nasir Little, a probably NBA lottery pick, with 11:26 to play. It was one of six shots Auburn blocked on the night and one that felt as if it marked the beginning of the Tigers applying the game’s seal.
Then, driving to the hoop a few minutes later, Okeke collapsed to the ground and immediately grabbed his left leg. For the next few minutes he writhed in pain on his stomach on the baseline beneath the hoop. His teammates huddled with their coach as they processed the scene, then went over en masse to stand over him and share words of encouragement. When Okeke was finally helped off the floor and into the tunnel, all five of the Tar Heels on the floor rushed over to pat him on the head or shake his hand. The Tigers came out of the moment fortified. “It’s bigger than basketball,” senior Horace Spencer said later. “My brother just went down hurt. I’m not going for that.”
The mood was merrier by the time the game wound down. Dunbar blew kisses into the crowd as Bryce Brown prepared to shoot free throws in the final minute. The stands soon erupted in an “S-E-C” chant that unified the Tigers supporters with the swarm of Kentucky fans who had filled the arena awaiting the next game. After the final buzzer Auburn’s band began playing the melody to the song “Sugar, Sugar” from The Archie Show, which was recently and popularly repurposed by a fan into the Tigers anthem “We’ve Got Jared”—as in Harper.
Auburn does have Jared, as well as an 11-game winning streak that has revived its once-slumping season into an ensemble performance that in its last two games drowned out Kansas and North Carolina by a total of 31 points. “It’s not just one or two guys stepping up—the whole team stepped up,” Brown said after the game. “Everything’s just clicking at this point.”
On Sunday the Tigers will look for yet another encore as they seek to punch the first Final Four ticket in their school’s long, football-centric history. In the locker room after the game, Pearl told his team to try to play it cool and act as if they had been here before. “None of us have been here before, so it’s kind of hard,” Purifoy said later. He was smiling as he recounted one part of Pearl’s message, then grew serious as he recalled another. “He just told us to keep our heads up and play for Chuma.” It was a night of divergent emotions, of a huge win and a potential huge loss—a night that propelled them onward all the same.