My series of explaining the road that each of the four teams took in order to get to the Final Four. In this series, I will go over what storylines each team had, as well as what the team actually got to the Final Four. The series wraps up today with the Auburn Tigers, who went from a five seed to making the programs first-ever Final Four.
The Tigers started the season 11-2 in non-conference play, although in that time they were only able to beat one eventual NCAA Tournament team, that being the Washington Huskies. The Tigers struggled early in SEC play to a 2-4 conference record and after an 80-53 loss at Kentucky on February 23rd, an 18-9 Tigers team appeared hit rock bottom.
Following that loss the Tigers won their final four regular season games, which included an 84-80 win over Tennessee to finish the regular season 22-9 and 11-7 in SEC play. The Tigers then beat Missouri, South Carolina, and Florida to set up a rematch with Tennessee, although this time they played their best game of the season in route to an 84-64 win and an SEC Tournament Championship. Later that day the Tigers were awarded a five seed in the NCAA Tournament, which was obviously aided by their late season run.
As a five seed, they would have to take on a good 12 seed in New Mexico State who was looking to pull off a first round upset to take down the SEC Tournament Champions. The Tigers led for the majority of the game and at one point by 13, before the Aggies made a run. Late in the game the Tigers led by 2 but thanks to a foul by Bryce Brown, New Mexico State had three free throws to win the game. Terrell Brown though stepped to the line for New Mexico State and made only one of three, then after a missed Aggies three, the Tigers were able to escape with a 78-77 win.
In the second round, the Tigers would have to go up against the Kansas Jayhawks, who had a disappointing season but it was still a team that had only lost road games on the season. The Tigers gave up the first basket of the game, however, from then on it was all Auburn. The Tigers took a 51-25 lead at the half, while turnovers by Kansas continued to lead into the Tigers success. In the end Auburn won 89-75 to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003.
In the Sweet 16, the Tigers would play the North Carolina Tar Heels, who similarly to Auburn, love to get up and down the court quickly. The first half was up and down with both teams making runs and scoring at a high level, although in the end, J’Von McCormick was able to make a layup to put Auburn up by 2 at the half.
In the second half, the Tigers jumped all over the Tar Heels to take at one point a 16-point lead. Midway through the second half, Chuma Okeke fell to a season ending injury, he had 20 points and 11 rebounds in the game, which at the end of the game was best on the team. North Carolina only trailed by 11 at the under-4 timeout but a great finish led the Tigers to a 97-80 win and the Tigers first Elite Eight appearance since 1986.
In the Elite Eight the Tigers played Kentucky, a team that had beaten them twice already in the season. The first half started off slow for the Tigers with them trailing by 10 late in the first half. The Tigers made a late charge late in the first half to cut the Kentucky lead to 35-30 at the break.
The Tigers came out red hot in the second half on the backs of Bryce Brown who hit a couple of threes early in the second half to get the Tigers going. The Tigers took a 6-point lead with about 7 minutes left but Kentucky was able to finish strong to take a 60-58 lead in the last minute of the game. Jared Harper responded though with a driving layup of his own which helped Auburn force overtime. In overtime, Auburn took an early lead and held on late with free throws to beat Kentucky 77-71 and advance to the programs first ever Final Four.
This road had to be done through beating three of the four “Blue Bloods” in Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky, which makes this run all the better. It was especially hard to do this after losing Chuma Okeke in the Sweet 16. The Tigers are going to be the underdogs in all their remaining games, similarly to how they have been in their past two games but they have proven that they are capable of winning with or without playing their best game.