Auburn senior G Bryce Brown on the loss of Chuma Okeke
The first person after Chuma Okeke to know the injury was serious was the player closest to Okeke, North Carolina’s Brandon Robinson. He leaned over the fallen Okeke in concern, then backed away as Auburn players arrived where Okeke twisted in pain.
The worst was feared when the Tigers left the Sprint Center, upset winners over top-seeded North Carolina in the Midwest Regional semifinals, and Auburn coach Bruce Pearl confirmed the news with the first response during Saturday’s off-day news conference.
Okeke had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He’ll undergo surgery on Tuesday. Auburn’s season, which continues Sunday in the Midwest Regional title game against Kentucky, will go on without him.
As Pearl was making the announcement, senior guard Bryce Brown shook his head.
“I don’t know, it’s just hard to take in,” Brown said. “I mean, Chuma, he doesn’t deserve that at all. He worked so hard, spent so much time in the gym and making sure his body was right.”
But the leg failed Okeke as he went up for a layup with about eight minutes and Auburn stretching out its lead.
Emotions played out over the next few moments. Teammates rushed over, then were asked to give Okeke room. Some Auburn players pulled their jerseys over their faces.
The injury status remained unknown as Auburn left a subdued locker room. They had just knocked off a second straight power program in the top-seeded Tar Heels after beating Kansas in the second round a week earlier. But there was no celebrating this time.
“We all knew it was serious last night,” Pearl said.
The hashtag #DoItForChuma first appeared on Twitter after the game and picked up steam throughout Saturday.
Okeke is a difference-maker. He finished Friday’s game with 20 points and 11 rebounds, improving his NCAA Tournament averages to 15 points and seven boards. For the season, the 6-8 sophomore stands at 12 points and 6.8 rebounds.
He shoots the three — who doesn’t for Auburn? — at a 39 percent clip, and that makes him perhaps the Tigers’ most difficult matchup.
“Chuma always gives us a chance to win the matchup,” Pearl said.
The news was met with a sympathetic head shake from Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“This is a sport where that happens at times, and you don’t want to see it happen to anybody,” Calipari said. “And the crazy thing is, not only is their team playing as well as any team in the country right now, they’re beating people by 25. He was playing as though he was their best player, which he probably was.”
The Tigers have been letting shots fly throughout the season — their 438 three-pointers are the third-most for a season in NCAA history — and guards Brown and Harper lead the way by combining to average 31 points. But Harper hands team MVP honors to Okeke.
“All the things that he’s able to do on the court,” Harper said. “Guard one through five, smooth from the perimeter, score inside. I felt like he’s our most valuable player.”
Danjel Purifoy figures to get more minutes in Okeke’s absence, and he was terrific against North Carolina, knocking down a season-high four three pointers and finishing with 12 points.
But Auburn, which lost twice to Kentucky during the regular season with Okeke, now will attempt to break the trend without him. The Tigers have been riding high throughout the tournament, gaining momentum with each game. The impact on Auburn beyond losing one of its top players is guesswork.
“I think last night after the game, it was a little bit tougher than it on us right now,” Harper said Saturday. “I think it’s another reason for our team to come closer together.”