There will two debutants at the Final Four ball this year.
Auburn joins Texas Tech as first-time participants on college basketball’s biggest stage after a 77-71 overtime victory over Kentucky on Sunday in the Midwest Region final in Kansas City. The Tigers will face the Virginia Cavaliers in Saturday’s national semifinals.
“I’m not sure we thought this was going to happen,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said following the victory. “I knew this group wanted to make history. I knew they wanted to play good basketball, and I knew they wanted to represent Auburn.”
Jared Harper scored 12 points in overtime to spark the victory.
“I feel like our team played well the whole second half and overtime,” Harper said. “I can’t do what I did without having the support of my teammates and coaches.”
Fifth-seeded Auburn (30-9) reached the Final Four for the first time in program history. The Tigers had reached the Elite Eight only once before (1986) and denied Kentucky its 18th Final Four appearance, which would have given the Wildcats the second most all-time (North Carolina, 20).
The Wildcats remain tied with UCLA. Duke was denied in its bid to reach its 17th Final Four when it lost to Michigan State later on Sunday.
Auburn became the first team to defeat Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky — the three winningest programs in Division I college basketball history — consecutively in the NCAA Tournament, and the Tigers avenged two earlier losses to Kentucky. Arizona defeated those three in 1997 in winning the national championship, but not in a row.
“(Auburn) deserved to win the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said following the loss. “We got outplayed, got outcoached and still had a chance to win the game. It never entered my mind that we weren’t going to win.
“The numbers say (we) should have won. I’m going to give credit to Auburn. They made us play the way we did.”
Trailing 35-30 at halftime, Auburn came out hot in the second half, opening with a 10-2 run. Bryce Brown hit two of three free throws to tie the score at 37. He missed the third but got his own rebound. He then hit a 3-pointer to give the Tigers their first lead.
“All I did was try to get out of the way, and get the ball to Jared or Bryce,” Pearl said.
No. 2-seed Kentucky (30-7) regained the lead when an alley-oop from Immanuel Quickley to PJ Washington resulted in a dunk with 13:29 left. But Auburn wouldn’t go away. A 3-pointer from Danjel Purifoy gave the Tigers their largest lead to that point at 54-50 with about nine minutes to play.
After the Tigers extended it to 56-50, Kentucky ripped off an 8-2 run to tie the score at 58 with 2:55 left.
Washington gave Kentucky a 60-58 lead when he followed his own miss with an eight-foot jumper in the lane with 56 seconds left. Harper tied it with a driving layup with 37 seconds left. After Kentucky missed several attempts near the hoop, a 3-point attempt by Horace Spencer caromed off the rim and the game went to overtime.
Harper scored the first two buckets of overtime to give Auburn a lead it would not relinquish.
Auburn was led by Harper with 26 points and Bryce Brown with 24.
Kentucky was led by Washington with 28 points. Keldon Johnson had 14 and Ashton Hagans had 10.
Kentucky seized control of the first half right from the start.
The Wildcats scored the first seven points and extended the lead to double-digits by the second media timeout. They kept Auburn at arm’s length throughout most of the half. Auburn used a 10-2 run near the end of the half to cut the lead to two points. But Ashton Hagans hit a three-pointer with 12 seconds left to give Kentucky the five-point halftime lead.
The Wildcats shot 45.8 percent from the field in the first half, while the Tigers shot just 36.7 percent. Neither team found much success from beyond the 3-point line, with both shooting around 30 percent. In the half, Kentucky was led by Washington with 15 points. Auburn was led by Harper with eight points.
With the win, the Tigers beat an opponent ranked in the Top 10 for the fourth straight game.
They’ll get at least one more try as No. 2 Virginia awaits in Minneapolis.
—Field Level Media