Auburn Makes 1st Final Four in Program History After Upset of No. 2 Kentucky

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2019

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - MARCH 31: Bryce Brown #2 of the Auburn Tigers reacts against the Kentucky Wildcats during the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center on March 31, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

For the first time in the men's program history, Auburn is heading to the Final Four.  

Jared Harper scored 26 points and Bryce Brown added 24, leading fifth-seeded Auburn to a 77-71 overtime victory over second-seeded Kentucky to take the Midwest Region.

The Tigers were playing in just their second Elite Eight in program history, their first since the 1985-86 season. Bruce Pearl, who had not competed for a national championship since his time at Division II Southern Indiana, will also be making his first Final Four appearance. 

Auburn, which was swept during its regular-season meetings with Kentucky, put together one of its best defensive efforts of the season. The Wildcats made just five of their 21 attempts from three-point range and had only 14 assists, as Auburn forced them into tough isolation baskets.

PJ Washington scored a team-high 28 points off the bench but got little help from the starting lineup. Keldon Johnson finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds but was 5-of-13 from the field. Tyler Herro, who came up huge with 19 points in Kentucky's Sweet 16 win over Houston, had seven points and six assists on a ghastly 3-of-11 shooting.

Kentucky and Auburn each had chances to put the game away at the end of regulation and failed. Horace Spencer blocked a Washington shot attempt, and Johnson missed a subsequent go-ahead jumper, leading to a Spencer miss on a game-winning three as time expired.

Auburn hit the offensive jets in the overtime period, scoring 17 points in five minutes after scoring 17 in the final 15 minutes of regulation. Twelve of Harper's 26 points came in the overtime period, and he knocked down all 11 of his free throws—one fewer than Kentucky hit as a team.

The Tigers join Texas Tech as the second team to be making their first Final Four. Virginia, Auburn's next opponent, will be making its first Final Four since 1984. The winner of the Duke-Michigan State game will be the only national semifinalist with a recent history of tournament success.

Auburn's offensive attack will make for a formidable challenge for Virginia, which likewise needed an overtime period to reach Minneapolis. The Cavaliers have been on a mission to atone for last season's embarrassing exit at the hand of No. 16-seeded UMBC and withstood every test. Ken Pomeroy's metrics grade Auburn similarly to Purdue but as a lesser foe on both ends of the floor.

Virginia will likely come into the matchup as a sizable favorite.

Kentucky, meanwhile, is now four full seasons removed from its last Final Four appearance. John Calipari led the program to four Final Fours in his first six years in Lexington but has fallen behind in recent years, particularly on the recruiting trail.

An Elite Eight run for a bunch not considered his most talented is still a strong outcome, but Calipari isn't as teflon as he once was. 

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