Injured Auburn sophomore F Chuma Okeke celebrates advancing to Final Four with fans
The Auburn Tigers formed a circle surrounded by lights and cameras in front of a makeshift stage on the Sprint Center hardwood, a trophy celebration about to begin.
But first the team needed a moment of reflection with its most valuable player. In the middle of the mass of blue and orange jerseys, Chuma Okeke sat in a wheelchair, his damaged left knee wrapped, his leg propped up.
“Let me get in, let me get in!” hollered Bryce Brown as he ran to the huddle from a postgame interview beamed back to happy fans in Alabama.
Brown joined the Tigers. They prayed over their injured teammate, let out a long, loud “Amen!” and started chanting.
Auburn #DidItForChuma, rallying for a 77-71 overtime victory over No. 2 seed Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final Sunday, sending the fifth-seeded Tigers to their first Final Four.
Before the game, Okeke’s presence appeared to be limited to his No. 5 jersey, worn by senior Malik Dunbar during warmups.
At Auburn’s hotel Sunday morning, Brown asked Okeke if he would be joining the team. Coach Bruce Pearl sat with Okeke while he made his decision. The flight home would be physically demanding. The ACL repair surgery, scheduled for Tuesday, loomed. In Brown’s words, Okeke answered, “Emotionally … I’m in too much pain to come.”
“I found a way to keep us out there with us one way or another,” Dunbar said of wearing the jersey.
The sight of Okeke’s nameplate on the blue fabric did not give the Tigers a boost. The NCAA leaders in three-pointers missed their first six baskets, including four from deep. They trailed 35-30 at halftime.
Enter Willis Reed, sort of.
“He had to be watching in the first half at the hotel,” Pearl said, “and said, ‘I can’t stay here. I got to go.’”
A Keldon Johnson layup put Kentucky up seven out of the break, and Jared Harper sank two free throws. Then Brown hit a three and was fouled shooting another. He made the first two free throws, missed the third, collected his own rebound and drilled a stepback three from the left wing. After trailing by as many as 11 in the first half, Auburn had its first lead of the game at 40-37.
Moments later during a timeout, Okeke was wheeled into the arena to chants of “Chuma, Chuma,” and the Tigers surrounded him as he rolled to a stop behind the bench.
“He wanted to be here for us,” Anfernee McLemore said. “It switched us into another gear for the second half.”
Brown put Auburn up 58-54 with under five minutes to play but the stepback jumper would be the last of his 24 points. The Tigers went cold and PJ Washington, who led all scorers with 28 points, put Kentucky up 60-58 with less than a minute to play.
Jared Harper took over from there, scoring the final basket of regulation and 12 of Auburn’s 17 points in overtime. He led the Tigers with 26 points. With Kentucky double-teaming Brown, Harper made all 11 of his free throws and several driving layups.
“We know Jared’s cold-blooded,” said McLemore, who scored four points in overtime and was crucial on several defensive stops, blocking two shots. “At the end it’s kinda like: ‘Give him the ball and get out of his way.’”
Auburn (30-9) had lost twice to Kentucky in the regular season. The last defeat, by 27 at Rupp Arena in February, is the Tigers’ last loss. They’ve won 12 in a row.
After surviving New Mexico State by a point in the first round, Auburn became the first team to beat Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, the top three programs in victories, in succession in the NCAA Tournament.
They beat the last two without the full services of Okeke, who had scored 45 points in 89 tournament minutes. At the Final Four in Minneapolis, the Tigers will face top-seeded Virginia at 5:09 p.m Central time Saturday. No. 2 seed Michigan State faces No. 3 Texas Tech in the other semifinal around 7:49 p.m.
“We’ll probably be the underdog until we win the whole thing,” McLemore said.
“We won out, we got a 5 seed, and we’re going to the Final Four,” Pearl said.
After the postgame prayer, the trophy was presented and confetti fell. Below the stage, the final act began.
Okeke slapped an Auburn sticker into a Final Four slot on an oversized bracket that later was proudly displayed in the Tigers’ locker room. After the nets were cut, Okeke left the floor wearing one around his neck.
“That one ... was for Chuma Okeke,” Pearl said. “The next two are for the Auburn Tigers.”