North Carolina met its match on Friday. And then some.
Fifth-seeded Auburn took on No. 1 seed North Carolina’s potent offensive machine and bettered it in a stunning 97-80 win to advance to the Midwest regional final.
With the loss, North Carolina is the first No. 1 seed to fall in the NCAA tournament.
Close game in first half
The first half lived up to the up-and-down track meet promised, with Auburn keeping up with North Carolina’s vaunted pace as the two teams traded blows.
But the end of the half was a premonition of what was yet to come as Auburn closed on a 6-0 run that included a transition layup from J’Von McCormick to beat the buzzer to take a 41-39 lead into halftime.
Auburn kept the throttle on to start the second half, opening with a pair of 3-pointers and a Malik Dunbar jumper to extend its lead to 49-39 and assert full control over the game.
The Tar Heels made repeated efforts to close the gap, getting within 60-54 with 13:41 remaining.
Tigers pour it on from distance
But then the Tigers opened the flood gates. Three-point shots that mostly missed as Auburn played a close first half started to drop with abandon.
Carolina had no answer. It was playing from behind as Auburn only got hotter from the field and failed to find the run that would keep its championship hopes alive.
Okeke suffers knee injury
It wasn’t all good news for Auburn. Forward Chuma Okeke suffered what appeared to be a serious injury late in the second half when his left knee buckled as he planted for a layup. He limped off the court with assistance and did not return to the game.
A first-round NBA prospect, Okeke’s absence moving forward would be a tremendous blow to Auburn’s hopes of advancing. How the knee injury affects his draft stock is also a significant concern.
How Auburn did it
Auburn won by playing North Carolina’s breakneck game, but better. The Tigers continually pushed the pace for quick baskets. When they missed, teammates were there to clean up the glass.
North Carolina led the nation in rebounding margin, picking up 10.5 more boards per game than its opponents. Against Auburn, that edge was one, with the Tar Heels holding a 37-36 edge. Ten of the Tigers’ rebounds were on the offensive end.
Auburn continually disrupted North Carolina’s offense, forcing the Tar Heels into 14 turnovers compared to 16 assists.
All of those Auburn achievements kept the game close. What pushed the Tar Heels over the edge was Auburn’s white hot 3-point shooting in the second half.
After finishing 5-for-19 from distance in the first half, the Tigers finished 17-for-37 for the game, a rate of 45.9 percent.
In case you haven’t done the math there, Auburn hit 12-of-18 three-pointers in the second half to blow the game open. It was all part of a 54.5 percent shooting effort from the field.
On the other end, a normally potent shooting UNC team hit 7-of-28 three-pointers (25 percent) while connecting on just 43.8 percent of its field goals.
Okeke led the way for Auburn with 20 points and 11 rebounds as five Tigers finished in double figures.
Bryce Brown scored 12 points and Dunbar totaled 13 as Danjel Purifoy added 14 and McKormick contributed 10 from the bench. Eight different Tigers hit 3-pointers as Purifoy led the way, hitting 4-of-6.
North Carolina saw a balanced effort with four starters hitting double figures. Cam Johnson and Coby White led the way with 15 points as Luke Maye ended his UNC career with a 13-point, seven-rebound effort.
But nobody for North Carolina was able to provide a desperately needed second-half spark. No Tar Heel connected on more than two 3-pointers.
Auburn advances to play Kentucky on Sunday. The Tigers can celebrate tonight, but another matchup against the Wildcats sans Okeke will be a tall task.
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