KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chuma Okeke had 20 points and 11 rebounds before leaving with a leg injury, and Auburn used another high-energy run to take down top-seeded North Carolina 97-80 in a Midwest Region semifinal on Friday night at Kansas City, Mo.
Fifth-seeded Auburn will next face second-seeded Kentucky, which pulled out a 62-58 victory over Houston in the second NCAA Tournament Midwest semifinal.
The Tigers defeated Kansas 89-75 to reach the Sweet 16. Kansas is No. 2 all-time in wins, and North Carolina is third. Kentucky leads the all-time list.
If Auburn wins its next game, the Tigers will reach the Final Four for the first time in program history.
Auburn (29-9) used a 14-0 run sandwiched around halftime to take a 49-39 lead at the 18:21 mark of the second half. The Tigers led by as many as 12 points before North Carolina scored six straight points. But Auburn answered the run and led 70-54 with 10:19 left.
By the time North Carolina (29-7) regrouped, Auburn led 76-57 with 9:19 remaining. North Carolina could not get inside 10 points the rest of the game.
“In the second half, early second half, we made some mental mistakes and they capitalized on it,” Tar Heels guard Kenny Williams said, “and, you know, they’re a team that once they hit a couple, they got hot, and they got hot in the second half and they kind of carried that momentum throughout the whole half.”
Auburn was led by Okeke, who left the game with 8:08 remaining and Auburn up 76-62 with a left knee injury. He did not return to the game. He was Auburn’s third-leading scorer this season with 11.8 points per game, and leading rebounder with 6.7 per game.
“We’re pretty emotional because it’s a bittersweet accomplishment because of Chuma getting hurt late in the game,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said in his postgame news conference. “Nobody works harder, nobody gives us more courage. When it gets tough and you got to go to a matchup, we got five and you don’t. That’s how we felt.”
Auburn had five other players in double figures. Malik Dunbar scored 13 points, followed by Bryce Brown and Danjel Purifoy with 12 each, and J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty with 10 each. Jared Harper had 11 assists for the Tigers, who were 17 of 37 from 3-point range and shot 54.5 percent overall.
“We knew we could hit them,” Dunbar said of his team’s 3-point shooting. “We have a lot of guys who can knock ‘em down, and tonight we just got on a roll.”
North Carolina was led by Coby White and Cameron Johnson with 15 points each, but they combined to shoot only 8 of 26 from the field and 2 of 14 from 3-point range.
Luke Maye had 13 and Williams had 10 for the Tar Heels, who as a team shot 43.1 percent from the field and 7 of 28 from behind the arc.
The first half was tight all the way, with neither team leading by more than five points. Auburn took a 41-39 lead into intermission after McCormick went end-to-end with 6.1 seconds left and hit a layup at the buzzer. The Tigers closed the half on a 6-0 run.
Okeke (12) and McCormick (10) led the Tigers in the first half. White had nine points for North Carolina.
—Field Level Media