Auburn sur­prises Ken­tucky to reach first Fi­nal Four

Harper scores 12 points in OT to lead Tigers

The Buffalo News - - SPORTS -

There will two debu­tants at the Fi­nal Four ball this year.

Auburn joins Texas Tech as first­time par­tic­i­pants in col­lege bas­ket­ball’s big­gest stage af­ter a 77-71 vic­tory over Ken­tucky on Sun­day in the Mid­west Re­gion fi­nal in Kansas City. The Tigers will face the Vir­ginia Cava­liers in Satur­day’s na­tional semi­fi­nals.

“I’m not sure we thought this was go­ing to hap­pen,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said fol­low­ing the vic­tory. “I knew this group wanted to make his­tory. I knew they wanted to play good bas­ket­ball, and I knew they wanted to rep­re­sent Auburn.”

Jared Harper scored 12 points in over­time to spark the vic­tory.

“I feel like our team played well the whole se­cond half and over­time,” Harper said. “I can’t do what I did with­out hav­ing the sup­port of my team­mates and coaches.”

Fifth-seeded Auburn (30-9) reached the Fi­nal Four for the first time. They had reached the Elite Eight only once be­fore (1986) and de­nied Ken­tucky its 18th Fi­nal Four ap­pear­ance, which would have given the Wild­cats the se­cond most all-time be­hind North Carolina’s 20.

The Wild­cats re­main tied with UCLA. Duke was try­ing to reach its 17th Fi­nal Four later Sun­day but failed.

Auburn be­came the first team to de­feat Kansas, North Carolina and Ken­tucky — the three win­ningest pro­grams in Di­vi­sion I col­lege bas­ket­ball his­tory — con­sec­u­tively in the NCAA Tour­na­ment, and the Tigers avenged two ear­lier losses to Ken­tucky. Ari­zona de­feated those three in 1997 in win­ning the na­tional cham­pi­onship, but not in a row.

“(Auburn) de­served to win the game,” Ken­tucky coach John Cali­pari said fol­low­ing the loss. “We got out­played, got out­coached and still had a chance to win the game. It never en­tered my mind that we weren’t go­ing to win.

“The num­bers say (we) should have won. I’m go­ing to give credit to Auburn. They made us play the way we did.”

Trail­ing, 35-30, at half­time, Auburn came out hot in the se­cond half, open­ing with a 10-2 run. Bryce Brown hit two of three free throws to tie the score at 37. He missed the third but got his own re­bound. He then hit a three-pointer to give the Tigers their first lead of the game.

“All I did was try to get out of the way, and get the ball to Jared or Bryce,” Pearl said.

No. 2-seed Ken­tucky (30-7) re­gained the lead when an al­ley-oop from Im­manuel Quick­ley to PJ Wash­ing­ton re­sulted in a dunk. But Auburn wouldn’t go away. A three-pointer from Dan­jel Pu­ri­foy gave the Tigers their largest lead to that point at 5450.Af­ter the Tigers ex­tended it to 56-50, Ken­tucky ripped off an 8-2 run to tie the score at 58 with 2:55 left.

Wash­ing­ton gave Ken­tucky a 6058 lead when he fol­lowed his own miss with an eight-foot jumper in the lane with 56 sec­onds left. Harper tied it with a driv­ing layup with 37 sec­onds left. Af­ter Ken­tucky missed sev­eral at­tempts near the hoop, a three-point at­tempt by Ho­race Spencer car­omed off the rim and the game went to over­time.

Harper scored the first two buck­ets of over­time to give Auburn a lead it did not re­lin­quish.

Auburn was led by Harper with 26 points and Bryce Brown with 24.

Ken­tucky was led by Wash­ing­ton with 28 points. Kel­don John­son had 14 and Ash­ton Ha­gans had 10.

Ken­tucky seized con­trol of the first half right from the start. The Wild­cats scored the first seven points and ex­tended the lead to dou­ble-dig­its by the se­cond me­dia time­out. They kept Auburn at arm’s length through­out most of the half. Auburn used a 10-2 run near the end of the half to cut the lead to two points. But Ash­ton Ha­gans hit a three-pointer with 12 sec­onds left to give Ken­tucky the five-point half­time lead.

The Wild­cats shot 45.8 per­cent from the field in the first half, while the Tigers shot just 36.7 per­cent. Nei­ther team found much suc­cess from be­yond the three-point line, with both shoot­ing around 30 per­cent. In the half, Ken­tucky was led by Wash­ing­ton with 15 points. Auburn was led by Harper with eight points.

With the win, the Tigers beat an op­po­nent ranked in the Top 10 for the fourth straight game.

They’ll get at least one more try as No. 2 Vir­ginia awaits in Min­neapo­lis.

Getty Im­ages

Auburn play­ers cel­e­brate Sun­day af­ter beat­ing Ken­tucky 77-71 in over­time to ad­vance to the NCAA Fi­nal Four. The Tigers won the Mid­west Re­gional at Sprint Cen­ter in Kansas City, Mis­souri.

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