The NCAA Midwest regional final featured two SEC teams and #5 Auburn defeated #2 Kentucky 77-71 in overtime to advance to the 2019 Final Four.
Auburn came into the game against Kentucky as a four-point underdog. Kentucky had beaten them twice in the regular season, but failed to complete the sweep. In the Sweet 16, forward Chuma Okeke injured his knee against North Carolina. Auburn held on for that win, but they lost one of their top scorers for the rest of the tournament. Without Okeke in the Elite 8, the Tigers rallied and defeated SEC foe Kentucky to earn the school’s first trip to the Final Four.
“This one is for Chuma,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl. “The next two are for Auburn.”
Guards Jared Harper scored 26 points and Bruce Brown added 24 points to lead the Tigers. Brown hit four three-pointers, while Harper was perfect from the charity stripe with an 11-for-11 clip.
“Auburn played aggressive. They played tough and bumped,” said Kentucky head coach John Calipari. “It was a grinding-type game. They deserved to win the game.”
Auburn won despite a monster game from Kentucky’s PJ Washington. The injured sophomore and Kentucky’s leading scorer missed the first two opening March Madness games with a foot injury. Washington gutted through the pain and came off the bench in the Elite 8 to lead everyone in scoring with 28 points and 13 rebounds.
Auburn (30-9) won 12 games in a row. They ran the table in the SEC Tournament to win it all. In the NCAA tournament, Auburn defeated #12 New Mexico State, #4 Kansas, blew out #1 North Carolina, and #2 Kentucky. Auburn will face Virginia in the Final Four in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Saturday, April 6. Virginia is the only #1 seed remaining in the tournament.
Pearl of History
Bruce Pearl led Auburn to its first-ever Final Four. Auburn is a powerhouse in SEC football, but it had been a long time since the basketball team received any accolades.
“We wanted to make history,” said Pearl. “You have to understand, at Auburn in athletics, we’re not Cinderellas in anything. We’re really, really good in all those other sports. We win championships. Been a long time since men’s basketball has been good.”
Auburn started the season with moderate expectations, but Tennessee emerged as the top team in the SEC. The Vols were the top-ranked team in the country for several weeks, while Kentucky battled with Tennessee for first place in the SEC. Auburn got hot in the conference tournament and picked off Tennessee twice inside of a week.
The March Madness selection committee gave them a #5 seed, but they were clearly much better than seeded. Bookmakers assigned Auburn at 100/1 odds to win March Madness. At the start of the Sweet 16, Auburn was listed at 25/1 odds to win March Madness. Over the weekend, Auburn picked off the #1 seed and #2 seed in the Midwest to emerge as one of the last four teams standing.
According to South Point Casino and Sports Book, Auburn is 6/1 odds to win 2019 Final Four.