The Auburn Tigers weren't expected to win the SEC Tournament. Head coach Bruce Pearl's Tigers weren't supposed to avoid being upset by the New Mexico State Aggies. Auburn certainly wasn't supposed to survive the Midwest Region loaded up with powerhouse programs like North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas. But they did, and the Tigers have advanced to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
Thanks to the dynamic backcourt tandem of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown, Auburn survived an overtime thriller to beat John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats, 77-71, and win the Midwest Regional Final. While 50 combined points from Harper and Brown were the deciding factor, it was actually one Kentucky fan, and the insensitive sign they created, that provided Auburn the added motivation they used to survive and advance once again.
During Auburn's runaway victory against North Carolina in the Sweet 16, forward Chuma Okeke was the best player on the floor. His game-highs of 20 points and 11 rebounds paced Auburn all night until the sophomore went down with an injury. Auburn and North Carolina Tar Heels' players alike came over to show support for Okeke, who suffered a torn ACL and saw his breakout season come to an abrupt and untimely end in the NCAA Tournament.
Just for an idea about how much Okeke meant to the Tigers, listen to Bruce Pearl talk about the young man from Atlanta, Georgia after the game.
Prior to Auburn's clash with Kentucky, one Wildcats fan decided to take a jab at Okeke's injury with an off-color and tasteless sign meant as an insult to a player who just lost his season. A photograph of the sign was originally posted online at the Instagram account OldRowKentucky, but was later taken down.
While some people may think this isn't exactly crossing the line, you better believe that Auburn players saw it circling social media and added extra motivation while one of their leaders watched from his wheelchair behind the Tigers' bench.
"Disrespectful but I got some for y'all Kentucky fans," Auburn's Danjel Purifoy commented on the original Instagram post.
"I think that's just disrespect and slap in the face," Auburn guard Samir Doughty said. "I'm so glad we came out and battled the whole entire 40 minutes for [Chuma]. I know he's happy. I know he's proud of us, because if he was out there, you know, he would have made a huge difference as well."
After watching the first half of Sunday's game from his hotel room in Kansas City, Okeke decided to join his team for the second half and was welcomed to the floor as chants of "Chuma! Chuma!" rang out inside the Sprint Center.
"He wanted to be here for us," junior forward Anfernee McLemore said after the game. "It switched us into another gear for the second half."
Auburn now turns its attention to the Virginia Cavaliers, which they'll meet on Saturday, April 6 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota with a berth in the NCAA Men's College Basketball National Championship on the line.
If I were Virginia fans, I'd leave the disrespectful signs inside from now on. Auburn is the hottest team in the tournament right now, and they're playing inspired basketball that is going to be hard to top, especially with Chuma Okeke there cheering on his teammates.