There was only one word that came to mind while watching Auburn destroy and befuddle North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen tonight: aggression. Everything Bruce Pearl’s Tigers did was proactive, all their drives were more decisive, and any hesitancy from the Tar Heels was gleefully pounced upon. They are headed to their first Elite Eight since 1986 after a dominant 97-80 win, while North Carolina is now the first top-seeded team to get bounced from this NCAA Tournament.
As Auburn’s gaudy scoring total indicates, they were able to crank the tempo up and play at their preferred pace (fast as hell). Take for example J’Von McCormick blowing through a UNC defense that expected him to pull up for a half-ending layup.
Tonight’s game was one of eight times Ken Pomeroy’s fifth-ranked offense has topped 90 this season, and they reached that mark by playing like an NBA offense. Thirty-seven of their 66 shots came from beyond the arc, and though they struggled in the first half, they came alive in the second and hit 12 threes. Skip to about 1:54 in the following supercut if you want to see the back-to-back-to-back flurry that basically ended the game with around 10 minutes left.
Auburn would have seemed like one of the most terrifying spoilers possible, though their hopes to crack the Final Four were severely hampered when starting forward and leading rebounder Chuma Okeke left the game following a nasty-looking knee injury. Okeke’s exact prognosis wasn’t announced after an x-ray, but you really only need to see Pearl’s teary reaction to see that it’s serious.
Even without Okeke, however, Auburn will still play relentlessly and they’ll take enough threes to give themselves a chance to take down any team left in the tournament. A team as experienced and talented as North Carolina didn’t just struggle to chase Auburn’s shooters around the perimeter and keep them off the glass; they seemed unable to keep their composure and run the offense once Auburn started bombing away. Only Coby White could match Auburn’s energy, but he also shot 4-for-15. During a critical stretch halfway through the second, UNC got to the rack but Auburn matched them and started blocking everything.
Auburn is now on an 11-game winning streak after ripping through the SEC tournament and their first three NCAA Tournament games. Their last loss was a blowout embarrassment in Lexington over a month ago, and if Kentucky advances past Houston, the Tigers will get a prime chance for revenge.