• 64°

Auburn eliminates Cats in Midwest finals

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KT) — The third time was a charm for Auburn and it ended Kentucky’s season.

The fifth-seeded Tigers (30-9) advanced to the Final Four for the first time in school history with a 77-71 overtime win over No. 2 seed Kentucky in the Midwest Regional finals here Sunday at the Sprint Center. Auburn’s path to Minneapolis included consecutive wins over college basketball giants Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky.

“(They) did what they had to do to win the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They played aggressive and tough, they bumped, and it was a grinding kind of game. … They deserved to win the game. We got outplayed, got outcoached, and still had a chance to win the game. I thought we were going to win the game the whole way until one or two plays in overtime. Never entered my mind we weren’t going to win the game.”

Kentucky (30-7) soundly defeated the Tigers 80-53 in the previous meeting between the two Southeastern Conference foes and even built an 11-point lead in the first half on Sunday before Auburn roared back to collect its 12th consecutive victory, the current longest streak in the nation.

“They pressured us on defense,” Kentucky forward PJ Washington said. “They tried to make all the catches hard, and they were boxing out and getting rebounds. They forced us to get one shot up and got back in transition and scored every time.”

Calipari wasn’t surprised by Auburn’s surge in the second half.

“They’re a scrappy team,” he said. “We knew even if we had a lead, that’s a team that can get hot quick.”

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl praised his team’s ability to pull through even after one of their top players — Chuma Okeke — tore his ACL in the Tigers’ win over North Carolina Thursday night. In a season of ups and downs, Auburn caught lightning in the bottle at the right time.

“We thought this was going to happen,” Pearl said. “I knew this group wanted to make history. I knew they wanted to play good basketball, and I knew they wanted to represent Auburn, the other student-athletes on our campus that can be for championships. And to do this in such an impressive way against the best teams and coaches in college basketball makes it even more rewarding.”

Auburn’s backcourt duo of Bryce Brown and Jared Harper combined for 50 points, with Brown scoring 17 in the second half. Harper was the difference-maker in overtime. Harper the Midwest Region Outstanding Player sank six free throws and scored 12 points in the extra period.

Auburn made just seven 3-pointers, but Brown and Harper made a living driving to the paint in the second half after forcing the Wildcats deeper onto the perimeter. The Tigers also forced 14 turnovers and tallied 14 points off this miscues.

“No matter how low we got this season, no matter how much adversity went through, we always believed this is where we could get to,” Brown said. “I feel like that was big, you know, just the guys in the locker room, we always believed and we also lived for this moment.”

In his second game back from a sprained foot, Washington finished with 28 points and added 13 rebounds to complete a double-double. Washington, who likely played his last collegiate contest, scored 44 points in the past two games.

Washington and Tyler Herro were named to the All-Tournament team. Herro struggled and scored just seven points. Herro hit a clutch trey down the stretch and scored 19 points in a 62-58 win over Houston Thursday night, managed just seven points against the Tigers.

Keldon Johnson scored 14 points, followed by Ashton Hagans with 10. Hagans struggled with a season-high seven turnovers against Auburn’s pressing defense.

“We had a few too many turnovers at inopportune times,” Calipari said. “That kind changed the game.”

In his last game with the Wildcats, Kentucky senior Reid Travis finished with nine points and grabbed six rebounds.

“A lot of emotions not being able to finish it the way I wanted to, but that doesn’t take away from the experience that I had,” Travis said. “This has been one of the best years of my life playing basketball, and I just wanted to end it the right way with this group of guys.”

The Wildcats came up one game short of sending Travis back to his hometown on the final weekend of the college basketball season.