In Sweet 16 action, #1 North Carolina out of the Midwest regional lost to #5 Auburn 97-90 and became the first top seed to lose in a chalk-heavy March Madness as Auburn advances to the Elite 8.
Auburn moves onto the Elite 8 for the first time in 35 years. With their 29th victory of the season, Auburn (29-9) set a school-record with wins. One more win and Auburn advances to their first-ever Final Four.
UNC came into the Sweet 16 game as a 6-point favorite. The Tar Heels opened up a double-digit lead in the first half. However, the Auburn Tigers roared back. Propelled by a 14-0 run, the Tigers closed out the first half on an epic run that put them up 2-points heading into halftime.
At the start of the second half, Carolina came out flat. Auburn continued their hot shooting and could not miss a three-pointer. The Tigers pulled away and Roy Williams’ squad was doomed.
Live By Three, Die by Three
Carolina couldn’t hit a trey to save their lives. They went 7-for-28 from long range for only 25 percent. Their starters shot a combined 5-for-21 from beyond the arc. Coby White shot blanks with a 0-for-7 night.
Auburn hit 17 treys at a 45.9% clip. Eight players connected on treys with Danjel Purifoy hitting 4-for-6 from downtown. Chuma Okeke nailed 3-for-5 en route to a game-high 20 points.
Once Carolina got behind, they lacked the firepower to get back in the game. All their sharpshooters went cold, while two key players were suffering from flu-like symptoms.
Off Night for Heels
Nassir Little, 6-foot-6 freshman forward, is typically North Carolina’s sparkplug off the bench. Little nursed the flu all week and did not practice. He played only 13 minutes against Auburn scoring only four points on 2-for-7 shooting.
Cameron Johnson, 6-foot-8 sophomore swingman, caught the bug the previous night. Johnson started, but looked sluggish from the outset. Johnson, who is Carolina’s top sharpshooter, struggled with a 2-for-7 clip from long range. He finished the game with a team-high 15 points, plus 5 rebounds and 3 steals.
“Nassir didn’t have the same lift and Cam wasn’t the same person on the court, but those are just excuses,” said UNC head coach Roy Williams.
Luke Maye, UNC’s senior forward, also had a rough night shooting. He went 6-for-14 from the field including 1-for-4 from three-point land.
If Auburn wants a trip to the Final Four, they’ll have to do it without their best player and team leader, Chuma Okeke.
Okeke dropped 20 points and 11 rebounds in only 25 minutes of action before he went down. He left the game after a gruesome knee injury. He is expected to get an MRI on Saturday, but it looks like a season-ending injury.
“It’s a bittersweet accomplishment because of Chuma getting hurt,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. “In a game full of guys that have a chance to play at the next level, I thought he was the best player.”
Okeke, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward originally from Atlanta, Georgia, averaged 12 points a game this season for Auburn. He shot 72.7% from the floor against UNC on 8-for-11 shooting.
Auburn will face PJ Washington and Kentucky on Sunday afternoon for a spot in the Final Four. Kentucky is currently a 3-point favorite over their SEC foe. According to the South Point Casino and Sports Book in Las Vegas, Auburn is currently 8/1 odds to win 2019 March Madness. Kentucky is 10/1 odds to win to the men’s college basketball championship.