'A bittersweet accomplishment': Chuma Okeke's knee injury casts shadow over Auburn's Sweet 16 win

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On an otherwise jubilant night for Auburn, Bruce Pearl was in tears over his team’s leading scorer.

Chuma Okeke had a team-high 20 points in No. 5 Auburn’s 97-80 upset win over No. 1 seed North Carolina in the Sweet 16. But he left the game with 8:08 left after suffering what appeared to be a very serious left knee injury while turning toward the basket in the post.

When discussing Okeke’s injury in his postgame interview with CBS, Pearl broke down.

“We're pretty emotional because it's a bittersweet accomplishment because of Chuma getting hurt late in the game,” Pearl said in his postgame press conference. “Nobody works harder, nobody gives us more courage. When it gets tough and you got to go to a matchup, we got [Okeke] and you don't. That's how we felt.”

“In a game full of guys that have got a chance to play at the next level, I thought he was the best player, and that has happened a lot to us this year.”

‘Chuma is our most valuable player’

Okeke screamed out in pain as soon as his knee twisted. As he tumbled to the floor, the apparent severity of the injury was clear as he writhed in pain under the basket. Pearl didn’t have any specifics on the type of injury Okeke had but surmised that it was serious.

As he was on the floor in pain, North Carolina players realized the apparent severity of Okeke’s injury and went over to him before he left the floor.

The Tigers were up 76-62 when Okeke went down and held serve for the final eight minutes as North Carolina’s comeback attempts went nowhere. Unfortunately for the Tigers, it’s hard to see Auburn anywhere close to the national championship game without Okeke.

With the sophomore on the floor, Auburn has been the most impressive team in the NCAA tournament since escaping New Mexico State in the first round. The Tigers blitzed Kansas in the second round with a first-half flurry that left the Jayhawks hapless. Friday night, Auburn shot just 26 percent from three in the first half and was 0-3 from the free throw line … and somehow had a two-point halftime lead.

Friday’s flurry came in the second 20 minutes. The two-point lead quickly turned to eight when Jared Harper and Bryce Brown hit threes. Not long after that, Okeke took over with three-straight baskets as Auburn’s lead swelled to 10. The Tigers finished the half 12-of-16 from three.

“I think Chuma is our most valuable player,” Harper said. “He rebounds, gets assists. He scores inside, outside. He can guard all five pockets. He's always in the right spot. But I think the good thing going forward is we have nine other people. Over the past month, we've got contributions from all ten of our players. So it will take all nine of our players to be to play and step in his role, make sure we're in the right spots and rebound.”

After the game, Okeke had the honor of putting Auburn’s name into the Elite Eight.

"I'm really proud of our team,” Okeke said in a team-issued statement after the game. “We were able to make history tonight. We do not drop off when we go to our bench and we'll be ready for whoever we play on Sunday."

‘A nightmare to match up with’

Okeke entered the game as Auburn’s third leading scorer behind Brown and Harper. But the 6-8 forward is so revered in Auburn because of that versatility and ability to impact the game in numerous ways.

“He's a nightmare to match up with because he can guard any position,” Pearl said. “He can score inside and out. So, as a play caller he gives you incredible flexibility. He's our most versatile player.”

The coach on the opposing sideline, Roy Williams, knows very well how Pearl was feeling after the game. Williams’ 2011-12 Tar Heels were one of the best teams in the country. But star guard Kendall Marshall suffered a fractured wrist in North Carolina’s second-round win over Creighton in the 2012 NCAA tournament.

Marshall’s injury derailed what could have been a national title-winning season. After beating Ohio in overtime in the Sweet 16, UNC lost to Kansas in the Elite Eight by 13.

“It's the most unpleasant thing in the world,” Williams said. “In 2012 we played Duke at Duke and had a great win for the conference championship and I thought we were playing great. The next game, first game in the ACC tournament, John Henson got hurt. In the second game in the NCAA, Kendall got hurt and we lost him. I thought we were as good as anybody in the country ...

“What you just have to do is keep going forward, because Auburn is going to show up to play regardless of who is out there, and those kids who are still playing have to try to pick up the load a little bit more and a little bit more. Nobody should have to try to play over their head, but it gives them a little more motivation now to play even a little bit better.”

Kansas guard Devon Dotson, left, guards Auburn forward Chuma Okeke during the first half of a second-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Saturday, March 23, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Chuma Okeke had 20 points before suffering a left knee injury against North Carolina. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Danjel Purifoy had 12 second-half points

Auburn has run North Carolina and Kansas off the court thanks to Okeke’s impressiveness and the speed of point guards Harper and J’Von McCormick. But the Tigers’ perimeter-dominated offense becomes even more so without Okeke’s presence.

Auburn gets just seven points per game from center Austin Wiley and over six from forward Anfernee McLemore. It’ll take a committee including Malik Dunbar and Danjel Purifoy to replace Okeke’s offensive production.

Purifoy did his best in the second half on Friday. He was a dagger to North Carolina’s hearts with his 3-point shooting. Purifoy hit four of his six attempted threes and they all came while Auburn had a double-digit lead.

Purifoy started 25 games for the Tigers a year ago and averaged 11 points. Relegated to a bench role this season after an early-season suspension for impermissible benefits, Friday night’s game was just the second time he’d gotten into double figures all season.

“Danjel is playing behind a great player in Chuma,” Pearl said. “Danjel is very good. He could have packed his bags and waited until next year or some other opportunity, and instead he stayed ready, and so many guys are thinking about well, ‘Where can I now go to get more shots or more playing time.’”

Purifoy’s chance at more playing time is coming soon. And he, along with the rest of his teammates, will have to be lights out from three if the Tigers are going to make the first Final Four in school history with their best player likely watching from the bench.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

Follow @NickBromberg on Twitter

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