Mark Story

Auburn plans to ride ‘this chip on our shoulder’ to redemption vs. Kentucky

Photo slideshow: Kentucky defeats Houston to reach Elite Eight

The Kentucky men's basketball team defeated Houston 62-58 in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Kentucky will face Auburn in the Elite Eight on Sunday.
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The Kentucky men's basketball team defeated Houston 62-58 in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Kentucky will face Auburn in the Elite Eight on Sunday.

Auburn’s low moment of the season came against Kentucky in Rupp Arena late in February.

On Feb. 23, the Tigers got run out of Lexington, beaten by 27 points. In the aftermath, Auburn found itself face-to-face with its basketball mortality.

“It was a possibility, it started to look like we were not going to make the (NCAA) tournament,” recalled guard Samir Doughty.

Forward Anfernee McLemore remembered: “It was our ninth loss of the season. Guys were tired of losing. It was not a great feeling.”

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Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson (3) got to the rim against Auburn’s Chuma Okeke, left, and Austin Wiley (50) in UK’s 80-53 win over the Tigers in Rupp Arena Feb. 23. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Yet that dispiriting day in Rupp Arena, the Tigers said, was the day their season turned.

They have not lost a game since.

Now, some five weeks later, Bruce Pearl’s surging Tigers will try to cap a magic-carpet ride through March with an act of redemption against UK.

The Southeastern Conference is assured an entrant in the 2019 men’s NCAA Tournament Final Four. To be determined Sunday is whether it will be traditional league kingpin Kentucky or upstart Auburn advancing to Minneapolis.

John Calipari’s No. 2 seed Wildcats (30-6) moved to the Midwest Region finals by ending the game on a 7-0 run to escape with a 62-58 victory over No. 3 seed Houston (33-4).

Standing between the Cats and their first trip to the Final Four since 2015 is not top-seeded North Carolina as expected, but No. 5 seed Auburn (29-9).

Before a stunned crowd of 17,385 in the Sprint Center, the Tigers humbled UNC 97-80 in a game that was not that close.

Auburn rode another barrage of torrid three-point shooting (17-for-37) to the rout of North Carolina.

Since that defeat in Rupp, Auburn has won 11 games in a row, including two victories over SEC foe Tennessee and back-to-back NCAA tourney wins over traditional powers Kansas and Carolina.

“We think we can beat anybody in the country,” Doughty said.

Kentucky went 2-0 vs. Auburn during the 2018-19 season, edging the Tigers 82-80 in Alabama on Jan. 19 before obliterating the men of Pearl 80-53 in Rupp Arena on Feb. 23.

The humbling loss to Kentucky in Rupp is why the Tigers are now one win from the Final Four, the Auburn players said.

“We decided to play together and stop worrying about individually,” Doughty said. “You see where that got us.”

Heavily reliant on standout guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown early in the season, the Auburn that UK will see Sunday now has diverse weapons. The Tigers led UNC by two at the half Friday night and Harper and Brown had a combined two points at the intermission.

“Our bench play has changed,” Brown said. “But it’s not only that. Our defense has picked up. We are a fist now on defense. We are trusting each other more on offense, moving the ball better.“

The giddiness in the Auburn locker room after the smack down of North Carolina was tempered by what happened to Tigers forward Chuma Okeke, who has been their best player during their late-season resurgence, in the second half of the game.

After hanging 20 points and 11 rebounds on North Carolina while making eight of11 shots, Okeke had to be helped off the floor after appearing to suffer a significant knee injury.

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Auburn’s Chuma Okeke grabs his leg after being injured on his way to the basket during the second half of the Tigers’ 97-80 upset of top-seeded North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region round of 16 in Kansas City. Charlie Riedel AP

“It was tough seeing him go down,” Brown said. “He’s had a great season. He had a great (NCAA) Tournament. … We want to do it (Sunday) for him.”

Said Pearl: “We’re pretty emotional because it’s a bittersweet accomplishment because of Chuma getting hurt.”

This will be only the third time in UK history that the Wildcats have met another SEC team in the NCAA tourney. In 1986, Kentucky beat Alabama 68-63 in the round of 16, only to fall to LSU, 59-57, in the region finals.

While Kentucky will be seeking its 18th trip to the Final Four, Auburn will be seeking its first.

If it happens, Auburn will have advanced to the national semifinals by beating the three winningest programs in men’s college basketball history — Kansas (second), North Carolina (third) and Kentucky (first) — back-to-back-to-back.

“We want to be considered one of the great teams in Auburn history,” McLemore said. “We felt like if we were going to (achieve) that, this Midwest Region is the place to do it. Three of the best programs in college basketball history, and you beat all three in a row in one tournament.”

More than history, after taking the two defeats to Kentucky during the season, Auburn feels like it has unfinished business vs. the Wildcats.

“Kentucky owns us right now,” Doughty said. “They beat us at our place. They beat us at their place. So (a third chance) will definitely be a game we are looking forward to.”

Said Brown: “We’re still the underdog. That’s kind of what has gotten us here, having this chip on our shoulder — and that chip is not going to move.”

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.

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