How does a football school take down three hoops bluebloods to reach its first Final Four? Start with that backcourt, which has the Tigers full of guarded optimism
THEIRS WAS a path to history. Go on, look ahead, their coach said, defying every tired maxim about singular and immediate focus. Bruce Pearl wanted his Auburn players to see all the opportunities presented by the NCAA bracket: possible matchups with Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky. Only the three winningest programs ever separated the Tigers from reaching the school's first Final Four. What could be better?
Two weeks later Pearl stood on hardwood strewn with orange and white confetti, perspiration blotching the shoulders of his blue dress shirt. That history had been made: Auburn had slain each of those behemoths, the last with a 77--71 overtime win over Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final. The Tigers did it largely through the sweat of two guards, Jared Harper and Bryce Brown—the former generously listed at 5'11", the latter a largely overlooked prospect still stung by those snubs—who combined for 50 points, including 25 of the team's last 35. In a month in which game-controlling backcourt duos are often the last left standing, Auburn's spent March introducing itself to a public that surely did not expect the No. 5 seed to prevail in Kansas City and now sit just 40 more minutes of downhill, bombs-away basketball from playing for a national championship. "They're the heart and soul of this team," Tigers forward Anfernee McLemore said of Brown and Harper. "With Bryce's shotmaking and Jared's playmaking, it's like the one-two punch that teams can't really guard."
The backcourt's heroics were made even more important because of an unfortunate event near the end of the Tigers' 97--80 throttling of UNC in the Sweet 16: Versatile 6'8" sophomore Chuma Okeke, their best all-around talent, tore his left ACL. Two days later he entered the arena dramatically during the second half, wheeled in to support his team from behind the bench. Afterward Okeke was chosen to place the AUBURN decal on the next line of the NCAA's oversized ceremonial bracket. "He slapped it on there with a grin—the hardest I've ever seen him smile," said junior forward Danjel Purifoy. "We're glad he can be happy in a situation like this."
Okeke had watched Brown take over the second half, scoring 17 of his 24 points on a barrage of stepback jumpers. In OT, Harper became a blur of attacking, daring drives at the hoop, finishing with 12 points in the extra period and 26 overall (including 11 of 11 from the line). Brown, whose only other scholarship offers were from mid-majors, said over the weekend that while he believed as a recruit that Pearl—hired in 2014—could make the long-irrelevant Tigers competitive, "it was hard to see the bright lights here three years down the road." Harper, meanwhile, said his recruitment had sparked in his imagination a future 30 for 30 documentary chronicling the Tigers' rise to a power. "A lot of us came here to be able to make this history," he said on Sunday, as his teammates cut down the nets. It was some story, all according to his coach's script.